The Art of Memoir: Write Your Memories

The monthly meetings of the Hughson Historical Society are regularly marked on my calendar. The first time I attended, local author Sandy Stark-McGinnis presented her middle-grade novel, Extraordinary Birds, set in a place inspired by Hughson’s small-town atmosphere. Now, with the recent release of my memoir, Historical Society President Janet Camagna asked me to speak at their August meeting.

But how to tie a memoir about medical motherhood, hospital life, and coping with grief to a historical society charged with preserving Hughson’s past for future generations?

I thought of the nature of the story I wrote, a memoir. I said, “An autobiography, shares that person’s entire life, but a memoir shares just a snapshot. I’m obviously very young to have written a book about my life. They’re so much of it left.” Thus What God Had Emptied shares about those two years from my son’s diagnosis, until a few months after my daughter birth.

Cover of What God Had Emptied, a mother's memoir

Our earlier examples of autobiography come from St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. They both titled theirs “Confessions.”

“And in that in looking at the different pieces, both of those men sought for a way to find to understand where was the meaning? Where was that string going all throughout the narrative, that connects it all together and that is again the power of memoir the power of autobiography,” I explained.

Looking back, as our season of life changed from those two years in the memoir, “I was then in a position to be able to look back and be able to see what all happened. And I began to put together those pieces of our stories that I had written that I published on my blog, that I written personally, through emails, with friends and piece it together. And found that there are so many things I learned through that experience of being able to embrace the moment that’s in front of us, at being able to look for meaning,” I shared.

I told the audience about Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist survived a concentration camp and emerged with the theory that we are not driven by power, as Nietzsche said, or sex, as Freud said, but by meaning. “When we can feel that there’s some meaning to what we’re doing that, there’s some purpose to what we’re doing. We can get through incredibly difficult times and memoir in taking this snapshot of a person’s life,” I said.

I started to write again

That was why I wrote. “I had to find a way forward, and as I was in and out of the hospital with Peter in the silence of that hospital room, I started to write again. I was writing out my reflections and I was writing about what I did that day, and I was sharing it with the world because that’s what you do when you’re my age. You blog. I was sharing all that information but I was also wrestling with how do I face this situation?”

We ended with a discussion of the importance and value of committing our memories to paper and leaving them for another person to treasure, “Even if you only have a the briefest part of that moment or that person’s life. That one snapshot with words is so powerful because it helps connect us to the history and to those people, even long after they’re gone.”

“Once we get some distance, we think, ‘Oh wow. They did that, they were involved in that?’ We can begin to think that what we have been through is somewhat less momentous. But, you know, when I heard here about the shoe store [in Hughson] letting people who worked in the fields buy shoes on credit, with the hope that they could pay it back but if they couldn’t, it was fine, as long as they had good shoes to wear. That was profound.”

The stories that make us

Those are the stories that make us, that form the culture of our families for generations to come. I extend my encouragement to you. Write your memories. It does not need to be perfect. It does not need to polished. It can be written as straight as a police report or as flowery as a Medieval abbesses’ reflection. When you write it in your own way, you leave a piece of yourself with it. In this way those who may never have met you in person, know you. The encounter the stories you valued, the thoughts and loves that lived inside you. The written word never dies. It can only be hidden for a little while.

So with that, I say, write!

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash