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I love memoir…that great literary art of laying bare the story of a life that matters. Not the full story, mind you. That would be an autobiography. Memoir tells only a “slim section, full of power, that demands to be told.” That’s the opinion of memoirist, Lisa Dale Norton, who calls it “the artful and honest exploration of the human experience.” She believes the whole purpose of memoir is…to allow for the unfolding of our stories by simply following the heart’s desire to make sense of our lives.

That makes sense to me. It’s why I journal.

Neil Genzlinger, on the other hand, begins The Problem with Memoirs by declaring: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up. There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

{OUCH}… It’s the kind of critique that makes every would-be writer of personal narrative shrink back into the shadows of their untold stories. Genzlinger makes some very valid and humorous arguments, I must admit, but so does Norton.

Here are seven that also serve as helpful guidelines for “weaving together…those iconic memories that gird the reality we have come to call our story…into a faithful representation and truthful recollection, crafted with compassion in order to make peace with ourselves and others…coming to terms with our shared humanness, seeing all players with empathy, and that includes ourselves.” {slightly paraphrased}

  1. You must voice your stories to get beyond them.
  2. If you do not write your hardest stories they remain confused inside of you, and you never get on to other things in your life.
  3. Writing your personal stories can transform the life you are living.
  4. Story heals the soul in an elemental way.
  5. Memories wait for you to pay attention to them and see the wisdom they have to share.
  6. Being honest in memoir has to do with compassion for self and others
  7. If you write with balance, honesty, and compassion you don’t hurt people with your memoir.*

“What makes a memoir hum with universal power,” concludes Norton, “is your willingness and ability to show compassion for the complex characters who [people your story]…. It takes stunning honesty to do this, but if you can, your memoir will rise above the deluge of me-me-me stories jockeying for space in our ever-shrinking literary world.”

That makes sense to me. I want healing and transformation and truth and compassion to be my story, so I vote pro-memoir. What about you?

julie-signature*Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir