When I decided to write a memoir, I went to the library and methodically made my way through every memoir on their shelves. For years I had been writing idea-driven books, and now I had to learn how to write pure narrative. A memoir should simply tell a story, without analysis or commentary.
Before long, I found the kind of memoir I didn’t want to write. Some people live such adventurous lives that they merely recount the facts. A fine example: Malcolm Muggeridge’s two-volume Chronicles of Wasted Time. The ironic title reflects Muggeridge’s judgment on the years before he converted to Christianity. (His Jesus Rediscovered tells the conversion story.) Unlike Muggeridge, I haven’t lived in Moscow or Calcutta, and I saw no point in an autobiography of my entire life. Frankly, most writers’ lives are boring; we sit at a keyboard all day.
I knew that my own memoir needed to focus on events from childhood and adolescence. Annie Dillard once commented that writers keep bringing up their childhood because that’s the only time they really lived. Soon I came across the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who won the UK’s Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The weird title first caught my eye, and reading Doyle I got intrigued by his attempt to reproduce a child’s point of view. Everything in the book is seen and interpreted through the eyes of Paddy Clarke, a ten-year-old boy in 1968.
I wanted to do something similar: to capture what it’s like to learn to read, to grow up fatherless, to fight with my brother, to endure boring church services, to live in a trailer, to get bullied at school, to confront my own racism, to survive a sassy and cynical adolescence. I wanted to render the stages of my life as if they were unfolding in real time, with an emerging rather than settled point of view.
Where the Light Fell was released last October, and since then I’ve received several thousand responses. Ninety percent of them relate something of the reader’s own story. (I didn’t grow up Southern racist, but it was just as bad in Chicago…Your church stories remind me of my Seventh Day Adventist days.…) I get it. I read several hundred memoirs in the process of writing mine, and every single one sparked a memory from my youth that otherwise I probably would not have retrieved.
Here’s the secret of memoirs: they’re more about the reader than the writer. The good ones strike chords of resonance, summoning up scenes from the reader’s own life for reflection and contemplation.
Something unexpected happened as I worked on my memoir. The two dozen idea-driven books I had toiled over for four decades suddenly seemed incomplete. Ideas can be abstractions, stuff we may believe but never fully act on. A memoir presents life in all its rawness. I had often used personal stories in my idea-driven books, though always to illustrate a point. However, life sometimes doesn’t have a point. Time doesn’t tie everything together, but leaves behind loose ends, irreparable mistakes, unhealed relationships.
People ask me, “Was it painful, dredging up those difficult times?” Truthfully, it wasn’t. I felt I was bringing order to disorder, splicing together scenes from the past in hopes of making more sense of the present. My idea-driven books took on a new light as I wrote a kind of prequel, filling in the background.
I write about pain and suffering because I’ve encountered my share. I write about grace because I found it only as an adult, and the first great gulp slaked my thirst. I write about Jesus because of an encounter with him that I neither sought nor desired.
Writing a memoir, I learned that although we cannot change the past, perhaps we can keep it from tyrannizing the present. The past forms who we are, but need not determine who we will be.
Some people love reading memoirs, while others don’t. If you’re one of the former, I offer this list of a few that moved me and taught me about the craft.
If these don’t summon up a few memories from your own life, then demand a refund!