It has long been my belief that every life is a story worth telling, a position I am often called upon to defend.
Over the years, when talking to students in my memoir-writing classes, to book clubs, to family and friends, and even to fellow writers, I have underscored the importance of leaving a written record of one’s time on Earth. But more often than not, the reasons I offer for doing so meet with reluctance. I am undeterred. For every lame excuse, I have a ready response.
I’ve never done anything interesting enough to write about.
Oh yes, you have.
When you were a child, did you dig a crater in your mother’s rose garden, hoping to get to China? Did you gouge out a tunnel and reinforce the walls with cast-off bricks, tamp down tasseling grass in an autumn meadow for a secret fort, build a tree house out of scrap wood? Did you drag pillows and blankets from your bed on snowy Saturday mornings, drape them across overturned chairs, and pretend you are tent-camping on a wintry mountaintop?
Kids do things like that; it isn’t unusual. But if you did, and if you went on to a successful career as an architect, an engineer, landscaper, video game designer, or any occupation that involves building things, well then, the link between your childhood pastimes and your adult pursuits can be the theme of your memoir. The same would hold true for an early interest in art, mathematics sports, cooking, music, etc.
But nothing dramatic has ever happened to me.
The fact that you never pulled a baby from a burning building, guided a plane to a safe landing after the pilot lost consciousness, or sang a duet with Springsteen hardly means you have suffered from a dearth of drama.
Drama can be on full display or well hidden.
On the one hand, if your mother’s tattered rose garden was a top contender for a World Federation of Rose Societies trophy, your Sino-American excavation likely ended in drama. If you crept head-first into a homemade tunnel right after a drenching rain and got almost out before the walls collapsed, that’s certainly dramatic. If you invited 16 of your best friends up to that rickety tree house and then accompanied 11 of them to the emergency room, well, you get the picture.
Often, though, the drama is all on the inside. Think of your first spelling bee, first piano recital, first day of high school or college. Remember the evening you got down on one knee and proposed to your sweetheart or got out of your car to help a stranded motorist. How about the time you were driving the kids’ carpool and almost got stuck between the guard arms at a railroad crossing? In the throes of situations like that, you might have appeared to be the picture of calm. All the drama was invisible to others, out of sight but ever so real. How you managed to carry on despite a galumphing heartbeat, blood turning to ice, tingles pattering up and down your spine, and a stomach gone to knots and curdles, that’s your story. That’s the theme of your memoir.
But your life is so much more interesting than mine.
This is your memoir, your life story. No one else’s. British author Neil Gaiman said it best: “The one thing you have that nobody else has is you.”
Does a memoir have to have a theme? What’s a good theme?
There’s no hard and fast rule about that. The theme of your memoir is likely unique to your life, but it should also touch upon some sort of universal truth. What my dogs have taught me. Unexpected events shaped my life/my career/ my character. The challenges I’ve faced and overcome. My rotten childhood motivated me to be a good parent.
Okay, but I don’t remember much about my early life. How do I write about it?
Did you ever take your father’s car out for a joy ride, and lose the keys? Did you show up empty-handed at the front door of your prom date and die a little because you left the corsage at home? Leave a pot of oatmeal on a hot stove while you took a long shower? Fail to set a wake-up alarm on your wedding day? Your memoir could itemize the ways your forgetfulness has complicated your life, and then go on to the ways it has enriched your life. It’s a terrific theme.
I’m worried about what my friends and family might think if they read about themselves in my memoir.
And so you should be. Concerned, surely. But there should be no call for worry if you write the truth, if you treat others in your memoir fairly, if you describe them but don’t judge them. Feel free to reveal your feelings about them, but beware of ascribing to them emotions, intentions, motivations, or unspoken thoughts. Respect those deserving of it; as for the rest, remember that in a memoir, generosity of spirit is a more likeable attribute than bitterness. And in the end, alter their identities beyond recognition.
But I’m not a writer! I know. You don’t have to be.
My spelling is terrible! So hire a proof-reader.
Where do I start? Anywhere but at the beginning!
Give it a half hour over morning coffee or an hour in the evening after the dishes are done. Start by assembling short anecdotes on index cards, then lengthen each one into a miniature story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. When you have a couple of dozen “memory stories,” you will realize the theme of your memoir, the element that makes each chapter distinct but cohesive.
Nobody will read my memoir.
Oh, I beg to differ. Give a copy to your children; they’ll thank you and then put your masterpiece on a shelf. But eventually, they’ll rediscover it, and find themselves absorbed in the unexpected drama of your “ordinary” life. Reserve a signed copy for each of your grandchildren, too. Your story will fascinate them because it will read like ancient history. Give copies to your siblings and friends, too. Offer your memoir to your local library, to the manuscript acquisitions director of your city or state historical society, to a genealogical society.
There is intrinsic value to writing your life story and to sharing it with others. This is how I put it in my new memoir, Recorder of Deeds (2022, Bedazzled Ink):
"Let the record stand. Let it be passed from mother to son, father to daughter. Let it color every late-night recitation of memories that animate the history of an American journalist. Let it imbue every accounting of my actions and temper every assessment of my character."
Above all, be encouraged by these words from author Suzy Kassem: “The only walls that exist are those you have placed in your mind.”
Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick is a former newspaper feature writer, the author of four published books, including Recorder of Deeds, and a member of the Colorado Authors League.