Why Write a Memoir?Feb 28, 2021
When Clara* suffered a near-death medical incident, she felt prompted to write about it. Though she had returned to full physical health, she was still wrestling with some residual emotional effects of the ordeal.
Clara came to me for help in writing her story. She wasn’t sure what good it would do to write about her experience, but she was open to giving it a try.
She started out strong in her writing. She captured the chronology of health events that could have killed her or left her incapacitated. This alone was compelling reading. Where she kept getting stuck, though, was in knowing why she was writing. What good will writing about this event do? Who is it for?
Knowing your why for writing about your life is a critical first step in getting started on a memoir. But even before this, it’s worth taking a step back to acknowledge the value of writing itself.
Irish-English poet C. Day Lewis famously said, “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”
Memoir writing is one of the most transformative types of writing because of the self-reflection it requires. Autobiography captures the whole of a person’s life. The main differentiator with memoir is that you reflect on your life, not merely record it.
We write about our life first to understand it ourselves. Just this morning, for example, I spent an hour writing about an incident that happened when I was nine years old at a carnival. I wrote it because I wanted to see if it would help me understand my relationship to fear.
When I got to the last word, I closed the lid of my laptop and cried. I had tapped into something unexpected. Not only had I discovered some important truths about why I handle fear the way I do; I also uncovered the place and time when I lost my voice--when I was silenced from saying I’m afraid and in need of protection. In writing about this memory, I came to understand much more than I realized was packed into that moment.
My morning writing may never make it into a published memoir. Writing about my carnival memory and reflecting on it for my own understanding is far more valuable than writing for the purpose of being understood by others.
Wherever you are in your journey to write a memoir, remember, there is lifelong value in writing your own life so that you can better understand yourself. Only after writing for self-reflection and understanding will you have something to share with others.
*name changed for privacy.
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