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Roger Housden

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The Dare of Memoir

Posted: 12/17/2013 6:18 pm

Why is it a dare to write memoir? It's a dare because it means telling the truth. Not the factual truth of what happened necessarily -- after all everyone who was present at the time will tell it differently, and anyway, memory is constantly changing and shifting our notion of the past -- but the emotional truth of the time as you experienced it then and however you may experience it now.

It's a dare because when you actually put the words on the page and let others read it, you may very well piss some people off -- and the closer to you that they are, the more likely it is that they will be the ones to be offended. Your mother, maybe, or your ex-husband. Your story may not be the story they have in their own mind. "It didn't happen that way." "I never said that or treated you that way." So the dare is to remember whose story you are writing.

You are writing your story, in your own voice, and memoir demands that you claim it, without apology. If you were to take their versions into account, or to tone down your version to accommodate their hurt feelings, it would no longer be your story but a mish mash without an authentic core.

It's a dare to write memoir because you have to leap over the hurdle of feeling you have nothing interesting to say. After all, look at all the thousands of memoirs that are already out there, and many by people who have had far more interesting or dramatic lives than you have. And yet none of these people have lived the life that you have. Only you can tell your story, and it is unique.

It doesn't have to be extraordinary. You don't have to have had an abusive childhood or have been left out in the woods for weeks to fend for yourself on berries and mushrooms. It doesn't matter if you have traveled no more than ten miles from your home. Mary Oliver is America's most well-loved poet, yet almost all of her poems are personal experiences set in her backyard, on the fringes of a nearby pond or a neighboring meadow.

No, what matters is not so much what happened, but the sensitivity with which you absorbed the experience and the ways in which it continues to inform and color your life now. Then what really matters is the translation of the perceptions of that sensitivity onto the page in language. When I ask people to write about a significant moment in my memoir classes, that moment may turn out to be as simple as sitting under a tree watching a leaf turn in the wind. Or it may be as complex as a life changing illness or the death of a loved one. What matters is how you show us the event. As the writer V.S. Pritchett once said: It's all in the art. You get no credit for living.

Finally, it's a dare to write memoir because the question that is always implicit in your story is "Who am I?" Who is this person around whom the significance of the story revolves? This is the real adventure of memoir -- the journey of self-discovery you embark on as you enter more and more deeply into the layers of your experience. The first great memoirist was Emile Rousseau. In his "Confessions," he says that

I have nothing but myself to write about, and this self that I have, I hardly know of what it consists.

So as much as we think we know about our story, there is far more waiting to surprise us when our own words hit the page. This is the underlying fascination that memoir has always held for readers down through the centuries: we accompany the writer in her quest for self-knowledge, and along the way -- because we too are human, and all good stories take us from the personal to the universal -- we too can start to see the thread of our own story with new eyes.

If you want to give yourself a New Year's voyage of self-discovery, why not join my six week online course, The Dare of Memoir? http://rogerhousden.com/online-courses/
Who knows, after a few weeks you might even find that you have pared your whole story down to four words, as the Haiku poet Shiki did for his obituary:

Loved poems
Ate persimmons.

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