A glance at the number of memoirs included on this week’s best seller list marks us as the “look at me” generation, a bunch of self absorbed, egotistical narcissists hell bent on being the center of attention. As the leader for the past 15 years of creative non-fiction writing workshops where dozens of men and women have accepted the challenge of becoming hyper conscious about the lives they’ve led, I’m here to say that has not been my experience…at all.
They say everyone has it in him to write a book; the difference is those who actually put the black on white, continue to write even when they don’t feel like it, way past the time it’s easy. Ranging in age from 50 to 93, “my” brave souls decided instead of bungee jumping, they’d dive into the frozen lake of their memories.
Almost immediately there was a murmur of recognition as it became clear we are all just about heroic for surviving childhood, let alone what came next. Whether raised in a Brooklyn project or a Muttontown estate, a Yale graduate or a high school drop out, the tales we told of excruciating embarrassment, utter failure, crushing disappointments and tremendous loss bonded us forever.
How much I learned from sharing whatever knowledge I have about the writing process. Stories of what it was like spending 18 wretched months in Vietnam returning, forever changed, before your 20th birthday…tales of raising children whose health crises define your identity…descriptions of marching on Washington in the 60s, of learning to fly a glider…of how you keep breathing while attending 17 schools before college…of riding an elevator with Jackie Kennedy…of hopping on the LIRR towards Manhattan to help minutes after the planes struck on that sunny Tuesday. What became clear is that every single one of us had a life whose amazing stories were worth recording.
Writing how we felt about what happened to us along the way was sort of a preemptive strike to control how we’d be remembered by future generations. What a gift it is to hand down the story of how you met the love of your life, how you stood up to the meanest kid in the neighborhood, what you ate on Tuesday nights in elementary school. What great lessons our lives have to teach about handling tough times, overcoming obstacles and surviving mistakes. About the indescribable rewards of appreciating, loving and forgiveness.
The truth trumps the facts any day. What happened on a certain day has little to do with what actually went on and everything to do with how we felt about what went on. Who cares if the person sitting next to us that day 30 years ago disagrees about who started that fight. Our memory is our truth.
If you stop to think about it…and that’s all that writers do…you would all rightfully be amazed at how well you’ve handled what life has thrown at you. I know you might not see yourself as extraordinary…but you are.
Written by Marcia Byalick, who teaches Writing the Stories of Your Life at Hutton House, part of LIU CW Post.