I always hesitate when people ask me what I write about. And since I’m deeply embedded in structural work of my next book, I’m more sensitive to the question than I might be otherwise. It feels too presumptuous to say I write memoir; who writes memoirs except famous or exception people. And since I am not famous, who am I to write one?
Except that the most influential memoirs on my bookshelf are meaningful to me precisely because of the ordinariness of the story rather than the previous fame of the writer. When I read memoirs of famous people, like Martin Short, Steve Martin, or Billy Crystal, I’m searching for insight into creativity, but I never relate personally to the writer.
However, if I read memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Jon Krakauer, Peter Matthiessen, John Lynch, Lane Belden, Lauren Winner, Gordan McDonald, and on and on, I find myself deep into their lives because I can see my story in theirs.
Maybe it’s similar to those Drugs-to-Jesus testimonies I used to hear at youth rallies when I was a teenager. I never related to the stories because the outlandish life of the speaker was so far from my own. But when someone simple, quiet rule-follower, stood up to talk, I listened. I knew that life.
The Bible tells us that “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Those stories we tell aren’t merely a recounting of random events, but a description of God’s work in our lives. The reason good memoir works is because telling the stories of our life helps others recall their own stories, and it is in that connection that we find common truth, purpose, and meaning.
So why is it so hard for me to identify as a memoir writer? Why do I think I have to earn the title through something besides writing?
Maybe I would feel better saying I write “personal stories,” except I’m not trying to merely tell the story of my life, but find the meaning in all our lives. That motivation springs from one of my core strengths: I see patterns where others simply see complexity. As far back as I can remember I’ve been able to find the story, or joke, buried in the chaos. I believe finding meaning among the clutter is my defining skill as a writer and teacher.
And once I find the story, once I understand the punchline, I am compelled to repeat it to everyone I know. Those of you who spend time around me know this to be true. I can’t keep quiet about what I’ve learned.
So I should get over my reluctance to call myself a memoir writer and just blurt it out. To quote a line from the movie, Chef, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.”
QUESTION: What do you do to touch people’s lives? Write? Cook? Serve? Listen?
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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