None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Almost three years ago (to the day), my self-identity was about to come completely undone, and it would take me two years to put it back together again.
Because in late January 2016, I received a staggering email that sent me burrowing down into memory’s mineshaft, unraveling the truth about my father, my mother and myself, in an epic underground journey that (eventually) became A Letter From Paris.
The work of researching and writing A Letter From Paris was agonizing.
For the first year, when I was discovering all the letters, photos and manuscripts about my dad, I cried at least twice a week. Some weeks, every night.
Memoir is, essentially, working through your memories. It’s personal, it’s deep, it’s profound and it’s exhausting. There’s a branch of psychotherapy called ‘narrative therapy’ where you’re essentially re-framing your life events according to the conventions of story. It often strikes me that memoir writing is like deep psychotherapy. But you only have yourself to check in with. Almost every time I sat down to work on writing A Letter From Paris, I really doubted what and why I was doing something that was so difficult and so incredibly painful. But we have to know who we are. That was essentially why I wrote this memoir.
Sometimes the memories and the pain of combing through them in minute detail felt like such deep sludge, I couldn’t see my way out. I just had to keep writing (my journals saved me during this time) and in articulating the story, working and re-working through what was true about dad (so in essence, what was true about me) until I could find a new path.
A new story.
So why write memoir if it is so difficult? Two writers in the last week have asked me whether the agony was worth it, so I wanted to share exactly how and why I think it is. I want you to know, though, that the work of memoir (when you’re doing it right) is profound, deep and exhausting, so I really advocate setting up some good self-care rituals as you work on your manuscript. You may need to take big breaks when you’re working on a very difficult part. I took 2-3 week breaks from the library research every time I found something huge. I needed time to process it, and I usually did this by journaling.
I also think talking with someone who has been through the process is incredibly good for your mental health. Once, when I was drowning in the memories and the vulnerability that comes from exposing yourself on the page (I pitched A Letter From Paris before I wrote it, so the proposal was very raw and unpolished, and I was waiting for my agent’s feedback) I spoke with a friend who had published a family memoir, and that one conversation strengthened me for the pitch process monumentally.
So why is memoir worth it, exactly?
1: Writing memoir changes you inside and out
Before I wrote A Letter From Paris I didn’t know my dad. I lived a ‘nice’ life by all accounts. I had money and work, I was debt-free, I had a nice apartment and I went to the gym. I was (happily) single. But there was an emptiness I didn’t even acknowledge – because I had such a blankness around my writing career and my own dad’s life.
Yes, writing A Letter From Paris was agony – like turning a ship around, re-forming the narrative around my parents, so essentially it reshaped the narrative around myself. But it was so, so worth it.
It’s no coincidence that now I understand that my dad’s writing life was actually very beautiful and romantic (and he had the most unique, long-term relationship with my godmother, Gisele), I have more pride in my own writing, and have found a loving, wonderful partner of my own. Through discovering where I came from, I discovered what I wanted from life, too.
It’s almost as though the difficulty you find articulating and reshaping your personal story is matched by how dramatically the transformation is in your personal life.
I also think I’m a more empathetic person now – to myself and to others. Family wounds are so personal and so universal – I understand how complicated every family story really is, because I’ve looked at my own, in agonising detail.
2: Publishing memoir brings deep and profound connection with strangers
Memoir is such a barrel of contrasts. Just as that first year of research was so unfathomably lonely, since A Letter From Paris was published, I’ve had the most wonderful emails and comments from strangers that make me feel deeply seen and connected.
At events in Sydney and Melbourne, person after person have queued up to tell me similar stories of never knowing their father, or never seeing a photo of their grandfather, or having a relative they’d always felt ashamed of that they were too scared to ask about. All of this is profoundly vindicating for me, because for almost two years, while this book was just hundreds of documents of research and bad drafts on my computer, I really had no idea if I was doing the right thing or not. I even had a professor of history for the Australian War Memorial ask to see dad’s Commando memoir – something that took me months to transcribe, again, not knowing how or why it could be meaningful to anyone other than me (and my siblings).
When people contact me to say they’re moved to ask questions about their parents, or find a photo of their grandmother, and find out where they came from, even if it’s painful, because they’ve read how I did it, I know it’s a universal story and none of us are alone, even when it may feel that way.
People have poured out story upon story to me – of lost parents, adoption, mystery, all these things I felt alone in experiencing. The profound connection that comes when someone says “I feel this too” is incredibly healing. If I could tell anyone else who is at that point I was at three years ago, where it all felt lonely and strange, I would say “keep going.”
3: Publicity is frightening but again, deeply connecting
I know the publicity aspect scares a lot of people, but I want to tell you all the wonderful things that happened from the moment A Letter From Paris hit bookshops.
(If it comforts you, understand that I had trouble sleeping for more than a month before publication day. I think this is common with memoir. This book is so personal, touching on so many private aspects not just about me, but my family, particularly both my parents, I was terrified of the public response).
In the first week, after seeing an ad in a bookshop catalogue and [I assume, from the date he posted the letter] reading A Letter From Paris the day it hit the shops, I received a hand-typed letter from a man who knew my dad.
The letter was beautiful – sharing stories of dad that I’d searched for two years – alone! – to read, sharing his thoughts on my book, giving feedback on the ‘three fortunes’ story. It had taken me two years to unravel the truth behind that story – and ironically, when the book was published, here he was, offering me an answer! That, in itself, was huge.
I also did an interview with the BBC in London. To have such a professional organization (with a listenership of 72 million!) package up my story, weaving in my voice with Coralie in Paris, Clementine reading her grandmother’s letters, sounds of post-war London and even my dad, speaking at the end, was monumental. I still get shivers when I listen to the podcast. To have others reflect your story back to you in this way – that it’s important, that you’re OK to ask the questions – questions you were frightened to ask your entire life – is incredibly validating.
Although the interview on Australia’s Conversations was gruelling emotionally (talking about your parents who’ve both passed away on live radio is exhausting, and it’s why I’m not doing any more events this year), when I walked out of the studio I had messages from around Australia, many from strangers who had known my dad.
One woman tweeted to me that dad taught her French (‘marvelous man’) and she’d met Gisele. More happy tears. Another man emailed me on Facebook that dad had visited their family home when he was a child, and he always remembered him because “he blew in like a hurricane with his French wife…”
These are stories and anecdotes I’ve wanted my entire life. That people now willingly contact me to tell me these stories – because there’s a book that clearly articulates how much I need to know – makes the entire process worth it.
One woman turned up to a library talk with her high school year-books – all containing photos of dad that I’d never seen before. He’d taught her French and she’d never forgotten him! Another woman turned up to another library talk, saying dad had helped her and her brother out when they were about to drop out from High School. He’d given them cigarettes, talked about France to cheer them up and invited them to dinner, because they were struggling at home.
4: Memoir brings you your tribe and you find yourself
Yes, I’ve had some nutty emails since my book came out. No, not every single member of my family has loved the book. The publicity process has been eye-opening with what people feel comfortable asking me in a public forum (shout out to the woman who interrupted me talking about my late father to ask if she could plug her phone into the projector I was using!!) and some of the emails I’ve received have been just plain wacky.
But by and large, the experience of publishing this profoundly personal memoir has been more than worth it. If the hand-typed letter from the man who knew dad was all that came of publishing A Letter From Paris, it would have been worth it.
Memoir is difficult, yes, but it’s just as transformational, perhaps for exactly the same reasons it is so difficult. It’s personal. It’s universal. The universe is made up of stories – and it takes a huge amount of work to examine your own, and write them out, objectively.
Two things helped me from drowning when I was working on A Letter From Paris.
- 1: I kept a daily journal. I recorded dreams, discoveries, agonies, signs, fears, feelings, everything. I had to get the feelings out of my head and onto the page where I could see it all objectively. Journalling is a deeply psychotherapeutic tool.
- 2: I spoke with other published memoir authors and experienced editors. You need to know the difficult feelings are normal, and you need to know you’re not alone. You also need to discuss the story with professionals who can see both the intensely personal aspect at the same time as the bigger story. My biggest writing breakthroughs came after short conversations where I articulated complex aspects of the story.
So if you’re working on your memoir right now, and it’s difficult, take heed that you’re doing it right!
Only you can know if you should keep going (if you’re writing about something very traumatic, you may need to take huge breaks), but in my opinion, the agony is most definitely worth it. Read my self-care post for some extra tips.