Part 2 of 2
In part 1, Jerry and I discussed the evolution of his thoughts on memoir and the insight that we are in the midst of a “memoir revolution.” In part 2 Jerry and I explore memoir’s organizing principles and the search for new myths.
Sarah: In your final chapter you talk about discovering chronology. You liken it to the artistic discovery of perspective in the Renaissance.
Jerry: Yes, I think discovering chronology is a really important benefit of the Memoir Revolution. Memory stores the past in a random grab bag of vignettes stored in no particular order, butreality unfolds in chronological sequence. As long as our memories are the only way we remember the past, we have a difficult time building up a coherent image of the cause and effect of our lives. Memory is a like a kaleidoscope that dishes up whatever happens to be relevant right now, but without the context of when it happened.
Memoirs change that by allowing us to put together the sequence. One of the premises of my book Memoir Revolution is that this ability to see ourselves chronologically offers new ways for us to understand ourselves and understand how to move forward.
Sarah: This strikes me as deceptively simple, for exactly the reason you gave. To “tell the story in the sequence it happened” seems straightforward, but is much easier said than done. Let’s take it to the next step: Given chronology as an organizing principle for memoir, obviously not every event can be included. How did you decide which events to include in your memoir? How do you suggest other memoirists decide which events are worthy of inclusion?
Jerry: Great question. Getting the sequence of life on paper requires research to pull the information out and lay it in order. Once you begin to see the sections taking shape, and start exploring the parts of your life that were filled with challenge and achievement, you can start to home in on the power that will move the reader to turn pages. That’s a creative process. I can offer tips and guidance but each person will do their work and develop a story.
I think one of the most important things about writing the story of yourself is that you have been reading, hearing, and watching stories since you were tiny. You have a lot more understanding of the form than you might realize. However, I will grant you that–if like me you are an adult learner of storytelling–the project can be quite daunting.
To decide what’s important, try to identify a theme, and then focus mainly on scenes that relate to that theme. Such themes can be quite abstract or psychological. When you’re young you want clarity and dignity. When you’re old, you might want those things too, or perhaps you move toward spirituality.
You can often see what is important based on what your unconscious writing mind dishes up to you during free writing sessions, or musings between writing sessions. Make lists of important events. Put them in order. When scenes jump out, write as if you were there.
Sarah:- In the final chapter you allude to the search for new core myths. I quote:
We need a new shared story that will combine the best elements of all of us into the universal principles of humanity. Memoirs offers a way.
And yet, each memoir is a singular story of an individual or small group of people, responding to the influences of a particular time and place. Can you say more about how universal messages emerge from these unique chronicles?
Jerry: You’re referring to one of my favorite “big ideas.” In the 1990s, I became fascinated by Joseph Campbell’s claim that in traditional society, everyone looks to myths as guidebooks for how to become good people. His observation came with a warning. In modern society, we are losing our myths, and therefore we are losing our cultural guidebooks. His warning made me wonder if there was a solution. Twenty years later, Memoir Revolution is my answer to that question.
In my experience, writing a memoir motivates us to find the structure of our individual lives in a form provided by the ancient system of Story. By showing each other how our lives work, we enter into a contract with each other that is at the heart of civilization.
In a society when elders are looked at like yesterday’s model, and we have come to expect change at blinding speed, writing a memoir is the solution. By fitting ourselves into this ancient, universal model of “story” we maintain continuity with the past, find courage to participate fully in the unfolding present, and discover that within the harmony and depth of our unique experiences, we’re not strangers after all.