How Would You Tell the Story of Your Life?

“Even if my memoir is never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.”

My memoir is sitting in the proverbial “drawer,” although in these modern times the drawer is a flash drive. My thesis adviser, who oversaw the entire MS, urged me to get it published, so I spent two years after I finished it trying to find an agent. I disliked the process intensely. It felt too much like job hunting, which I’d been doing without success for three years by then.

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There he is: the one and only “Brown Jesus” my mom beat the crap out of.

But even if the chapters of the memoir are never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. For one thing, it was cathartic. At the time I wrote it, I’d spent 10 years in therapy trying to undo the damage from the first eighteen years of my life. We barely scratched the surface.

The memoir forced me to confront memories of traumatic experiences that I’d never fully processed. I was fortunate that my mother and two of my siblings were willing to talk about the things that happened. Getting their version of the stories helped to jog my memory and it helped me to portray the people and events more empathetically. Some of it was painful, certainly. The chapter that made me cry as I wrote it was from the absolute lowest point of my childhood. I wrote it last. That was a strategy I learned from Alice Seibold, who said that she waited until the rest of her memoir was completed before writing the chapter about her brutal rape.

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How many of us have happy, smiling photos from the most painful times of our childhood?

The second thing I got from writing the memoir was the understanding that some of the things that I believed when I was young were wrong. I’d misinterpreted or simply ignored the signals that were so obvious to me as an adult. For instance, at the time it happened, I never wondered what my father was doing when I caught him hiding liquor bottles in the basement ceiling. Children want to make sense of the world and will invent reasons for the unexplained. I also saw times in my teen years in which people reached out to me and wanted to be friends but I was too self-absorbed to notice.

By the time I finished the book, I had faced down my demons and gained a better understanding of the world I lived in as a child. It diminished memories that were painful simply because I had remembered or interpreted things wrongly. In the end, the process of writing the memoir gave me a sense of peace and perspective for the first time in my life.

I highly recommend it.

EXERCISE: Good or bad, what is your most vivid memory from your childhood or teen years? Write about it in first person as if you were there. When you look over your story, what does it tell you about yourself? Share your thoughts and excerpts in the comments.

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