What if someone else told your story?
People ask me why I’m so passionate about memoir, and I think about one of the most significant things that happened in my childhood.
My father died when I was six, and because he was so much older than my mum and most of his siblings had also passed on, i had to rely on other people’s versions of his story.
If you haven’t read my memoir A Letter From Paris, I’ll sum up the gist of it: these stories weren’t that good, and they also weren’t completely true.
The stories i read (in his obituary, in his school records, in other men’s memoirs, etc etc) told me that he’d ‘failed’, that he’d been dismissed from service in the War (not true), and that he wasted three fortunes (also not true – he grew up the youngest child of a vicar and his mother was incapacitated.)
So. Because of these stories of his life written by others and filtered through their perceptions and the prevailing attitudes of the time, I actually had the completely wrong idea of who my father was, what he’d done, who and what he’d loved, and his character.
I was ashamed of him.
Because I’d been misinformed and I had no access to his side of the story!
When I found his unpublished memoir, hidden in a vault in the State Library Victoria, mislabelled and untouched for over 30 years, it was like i’d opened Tutankhamen’s tomb. The personal value of what I uncovered is so hard to describe. But it was like unwrapping both my father and myself.
This precious pile of words was his life, his character and his story. I finally had the truth – and it contradicted so much of what I’d read when I was growing up!
My dad’s story – like your story, like my story – could not be told truthfully by someone else. It simply cannot!
By writing his memoirs he figured out a way to reach me even when he was physically gone from this earth.
THIS is why i care that people tell their version of their own story.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani was written from Manus Island Prison and has now been published and won the Miles Franklin Award. How powerless, how trapped and voiceless Boochani must have felt with no-one to know what he was going through. MAID by Stephanie Land, is another example of a personal account which has freed others to talk openly about hidden poverty among single mothers fleeing domestic violence, and other social issues which affect millions of women across the world.
If you’ve lived through something significant – good OR bad – I believe it’s even more important to share your experiences in the written word before it’s too late. Sometimes when I look back at the past two years we’ve been living through globally (fire, flood, pandemic, unrest) I wonder at the breadth of stories that will come from this time, much like the endless movies and documentaries made about World War Two, etc. But the personal experience of the universal is always what’s most interesting.
Yes, I know this is all rather heavy and deep but this is why it matters to me that you write your story. Even if you don’t want to be published, even if it’s just to leave a written record for your children or your children’s children’s children or those who experience a similar thing after you, even if it’s just for the sheer liberation of being able to speak (on the page) without interruption. That’s why I’ve always personally needed the process of memoir writing – as a youngest child and someone who could never think on-the-spot very well, writing my experiences gave me a chance to process and articulate them. Without someone contradicting me or talking over me. Memoir is therapeutic for so many reasons like this – but it can also be transformational and life-changing for those who find your written account.
The value of your memoir is priceless. It’s an eternal and beautiful account of your life – and you can’t put a price on your life! It’s a piece of you which will live beyond you, and it has the power to connect with readers unlike any other genre of writing. Compare a letter from a war zone to a news article on the same conflict – one grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the feelings, the other keeps you at a safe distance.
And lastly, the very process of writing your memoir is a psychotherapeutic process where you literally play ‘God’ with your life because you are creating meaning from the events and shaping the narrative. This is what I talk about in my memoir masterclass, and why the health benefits of memoir writing (when you use a narrative framework) are so startling. Did you know writing memoir (with a narrative framework, so not just bits and pieces randomly) was found to be just as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy for people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Watch my memoir masterclass for more on that!