Memoirs are popular with readers these days and most of us find them intriguing and entertaining. But when writing about oneself, the pleasure can easily morph into anxiety. The risks are obvious: fear of judgment, of offending friends and family, or even of being sued. And worse, there’s the inherent danger of being boring, that most dreaded of pejoratives.
The upside, though, is more than the obvious but remote possibility of fame and fortune. The best reward? Learning about yourself. A memoir is more than a collection of stories. For it to be truly distinctive, you have to tell us who you are. Of course, you need to know who that is first. You may think you already know. But after writing almost three hundred pages about that endlessly interesting subject—moi—I was in for some surprises.
As I examined my own life, I expected to find familiar threads—gravitation toward show business in its various forms, intense and often long-lasting relationships, an iconoclastic intolerance for superficiality. All those are true. At the same time, through internal excavation, I discovered that at the core was a persistent (some might say relentless) drive to create a self-fulfilling life while riding an occasionally steep learning curve. Looking at my long life through that lens explains most everything.
Writing memoir is not therapy, not even close. Conventional wisdom says psychotherapy is undertaken to repair a part of the self. Memoir is an exploration, a safari into the self. One could speculate there’s a positive correlation between that acquired self-knowledge and the book’s timelessness.
Visualize your life as a series of concentric circles like a bulls-eye. On the outside ring are the transient things that mattered to you at various times in your life (getting an A, losing ten pounds). Then moving more toward the center, you identify more life-building goals (maintaining a healthy marriage, finding a meaningful career). At the core are the non-negotiables. It’s much easier to write about peripheral goals and values than it is to recognize the ones that are immutable. And yet, if you don’t know what has mattered to you over time, it’s challenging to write with context, consistency or depth.
Writing a memoir without a bent toward introspection is, well, imprudent. And you have to believe that you have value, that what you disclose is worthy of being read and maybe helpful to someone else.
There is something of the universal in all of us. A proficient memoirist taps not only the multi-tiered interior landscape but must find the patterns, common experiences and emotions that make a life memorable.