Telling Your Story: The Lessons of Memoirs

The Art of MemoirI love to read memoirs about people I admire or who have an interesting tale to tell. The three I have read most recently have some important lessons about writing our own history. I don’t know about you but writing about my life has been difficult, especially about my childhood. In my scrapbooks, often the best I have done is to label photos with names, dates and locations. I once tried to do a scrapbook called “All About Me” and got hopelessly derailed at the very beginning trying to explain my parent’s wedding and early marriage.  I never even got to my birth. But as genealogists, we know that it is more at stake than just researching and documenting the stories of our ancestors, it is about telling our own narrative for the next generation.  What would you give to have your great-grandparent’s diary, autobiography or essays they wrote about their lives?  So here are some excellent books to consider reading to get you prepared for writing the story of your life.

The first book I started with was Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.  She is probably best known for The Liars’ Club about her unconventional Texas youth. She is also a professor at Syracuse University and teaches a seminar on writing memoirs. In this book, she deconstructs memoirs, including her own, and tells us what makes them work or fall apart.

The Death of SantiniNext, I moved on to Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini. You will know Conroy from his novels and movies The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. In The Death of Santini, Conroy tells the story of his life and relationships with his parents and siblings.  He is a magnificent storyteller; whose novels came from the infinite well of his own experiences.  Despite the horrific events that Conroy discusses in his memoir, I found myself often laughing out loud at his ability to find humor in the ridiculous circumstances.

Finally, I just finished The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Anderson Cooper is a writer and CNN journalist.  Gloria Vanderbilt is from the wealthy and influential Vanderbilt family, as well as being a writer, actress and designer. Gloria is in her early 90’s now and through a year-long e-mail correspondence with her son, she reveals her thoughts and feelings about growing up without a father, her complicated relationships with her mother, grandmother, nanny and aunt, the bitter court case fighting over her guardianship, her many love affairs and how she has continued to feel optimistic about life.

What these books taught me to think about when writing my memoirs:

  • Truth – Our minds tend to mold the past to what we can live with.  Sometimes that is putting a bright and shiny veneer on it.  Sometimes it is so difficult, we put it a box so we don’t have to look at it and then we don’t really remember it very well at all. Sometimes we change the details because that is what we have heard from others so many times that it becomes the “story” we think we remember.  But we need to write the truth of lives, not the version seen through a vaseline covered lens. It might take some work, talking with people who were observers or participants of that time of your life, meditation, writing using prompts etc., but try to get to the essence of what really happened.
  • Painful Memories – All three of these memoirs deal with difficult subjects such as alcoholism, mental illness, physical abuse, abandonment, family manipulations/dysfunctions, poor or absent parenting etc., but there is incredible beauty in the writer’s resilience.  They go on to face the past and discuss their complicated feelings about events. Through the process, they forgive their families and themselves. There is power in the truth and we have no idea what effects telling your story might have on future generations of your family.  Pat Conroy literally changed the attitudes of Americans towards the value of therapy through his novel The Prince of Tides.
  • “Carnality” – Mary Karr talks about the necessity of including “carnality” in our writing. This is a reminder to include the sensory and physical details in your stories.  Write about the taste of peaches from your tree in the family garden, the smell of lilacs from your mother’s lingerie drawer, the feel of your father’s beard against your skin when he kissed you goodnight or the sight of your first bike under the Christmas tree. Was it red or blue? Was it new or 2nd hand from your older sister and repainted and given a new white basket with ribbons to make it new again? Dig deep for those specifics, they are still there in your conscious or unconscious mind.  This is what will move your reader from their heads to touching their hearts.
  • The Rainbow Comes and GoesMortality – Have you noticed that you have moved into the next generation slot? Age is moving us closer to the finish line and we are or will soon be the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family. Perhaps you have postponed sitting down to write until retirement or you get a large block of time? Pat Conroy just passed away from pancreatic cancer that he didn’t know he had until a few weeks before he died. I am so grateful that he wrote The Death of Santini and mourn all the books we will never have from him because of his death at 70.
  • Your Voice – You need to tell the story…no one is going to tell it like you and remember the things you do. In listening to Gloria Vanderbilt read her portions of the book on the audio version I listened to, her voice breaks when talking about her nanny Dodo and certain childhood memories….80 years later and she is still moved to tears by what happened to her. I suspect that most of us are all still trying to make sense of our childhoods and what it meant. Getting your story told from your perspective is essential! Anderson Cooper had to research his own mother’s life, looking at newspapers and film footage because they had never discussed her childhood beyond the basics before they started this e-mail exchange. Don’t make your children get your story from public records and second-hand sources.  They will want to hear it in your words.

I have been talking to my Grandmother for years about her life and very seldom have I been able to get her to go deeper than the “party line”. She would have been a great political spin doctor had she been born in more recent generations. What have you not told your children? And I am not just talking about the historical facts, but your feelings about them. Don’t we owe our descendants more than the vague chronology of events or even worse the “myths” that were created?  Tell your story, for you and for your children.

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5 Responses to Telling Your Story: The Lessons of Memoirs

  1. Rachelle:

    I thought this blog post of yours was particularly intriguing. I saw Gloria and Anderson on 60 minutes recently talking about the book and correspondence and was touched by the specifics, but as I always am, by their warm and humorous relationship. I see my mom and me in a lot of their interactions. I have Ccd my mom because she might find this topic interesting and I’m not sure if she has subscribed to your blog, which I think she will find interesting in general.


    Be well,

    Garrison Kurtz President Dovetailing 2607 Western Avenue #907 Seattle, WA 98121 P. 206.861.5992

    Learn about some of the exciting things our clients are doing!


    • Rachelle says:

      I am glad you enjoyed reading this blog and are passing it on to Bev. Did you watch “Nothing Left Unsaid”, the documentary about Anderson and Gloria’s dialogue etc. I think they are still showing it on HBO. xoxo

  2. Laura says:

    Great post. Thank you. I think I may have the read the Mary Karr book before I start trying to write my grandfather’s memoir, even though I have a lot of his original material to work with. I would like to tell the story in an interesting, not simply reporting, manner.

    • Rachelle says:

      Thank you! The other book I ordered, but haven’t read yet is called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Non-Fiction by Lee Gutkind. It looks like he gives a lot of examples.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Bravo! Great all around and I loved them!

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