We are surrounded by metaphorical Memes and quotes reminding us that —unless we walk a mile in someone’s shoes, unless we know someone’s pain, unless we walk the path someone walks—we don’t know what their life is like, their pain or their joy. So, unless we live it, we can’t judge it.
Facebook is full of these. Thanks to Meme generators and Google images, we can now pair an image to help sell the rhetoric of the message. Why are these posted? Maybe the person who posts these messages wants to reprimand a friend or friends about their judgment or perhaps it’s a cry for help, to alert others to his pain.
I love the genre of memoir. The memoir is unique, because in fact, it’s not a genre. Memoirs are written as poetry, as graphic novel, as a children’s picture book, as essay, and as creative narrative nonfiction. Memoirs are the life stories of an ordinary person who has experienced something extraordinary. All of us who are everymen and everywomen have experienced extraordinary life events. Anything beyond the normal is extraordinary, right?
The memoir encourages the writers of his life story to zoom in and focus on a specific moment when that extraordinary happened. And then, if well-composed, the reader is catapulted into a constellation of sensory details that make him, the ordinary man reading it, also feel extraordinary and enlightened. This enhanced emotional quality that the memoir skywrites is what makes it so beautiful and accessible. Sadly, the memoirs that most readers gravitate to are the memoirs written by celebrities and politicians who try desperately paint themselves as ordinary. We don’t know these individuals except for what we have seen or read, so we salivate at the chance to learn something special. Of course the other 100,000 readers of that memoir will also learn that same something special.
And, we all know that most of those individuals hire ghostwriters and because memory is fallible, no memoir is guaranteed to be the truth. And no celebrity is going to publish anything that is going to harm the public relations component of their career. They have to much to lose.
This is why I remain a fan of the Everyman’s memoir. They have little to lose. They are compelled to tell their stories to set the record straight, to teach, to help others, to heal, etc…. I was drawn to Memoirs 13 years ago. As a new mother, I was intrigued about mothering and read memoir after memoir about mothers. Mothers who had Schizophrenia like Mira Bartok’s mother in Memory Palace, about what it’s like to mother a child with a severe disabilities in Susan Zimmerman’s Writing to Heal, or mothers who ignore abusive fathers like Lydia Yuknavich’s The Chronology of Water. These books were published by small or independent publishers and while those of us who work in the field of creative narrative nonfiction read their works, they aren’t as widely known as your favorite actress, former senator’s wife, or ball player’s story.
So compelled by memoir, I became fixated and read as much as I could. As the co-creator and director of the Memoir Project for the Indiana Writers Center, I am committed with making sure that the everyman and woman has the chance to tell their extraordinary stories. We seek out and work with individuals marginalized by society and give them a voice. Give them the chance to tell their mother stories or their life before and during prison stories or their poverty stories or their homeless story.
Public memoir projects, like ours, tell stories that come from the gut and go for the jugular, which memoirst Natalie Goldberg reminds us is the best damn kind of writing. In my ten years of listening to, editing, and publishing thousands of these everyman memoirs through our independent press, INwords, I have learned and grown in empathy. While I haven’t walked in those shoes, by reading their stories, I have walked beside them. I get the opportunity to touch, taste, and see the abuse within prison walls; feel the cold and loneliness of mulch and dirt of sleeping outside someone’s garage, feel the pain of watching a child die that no one thought should have been born in the first place.
And I learn. I learned about how someone ends up (mostly unjustly) in prison. I learned how the world tells young black men living in poverty that their life doesn’t matter. I learned how one becomes homeless. I learned about the catalyst that creates a slow spiral towards addiction. Those ordinary everymen and women are extraordinary teachers. Just by being brave enough to tell their stories.
So, before you rush to the New York Times Best Seller list to read the next celebrity memoir or memoir written by someone with a literary agent who was able to access a large and almost impossible to penetrate large publishing house, check out your neighbor’s story.
Right here in Indianapolis at the Indiana Writers Center, we have captured stories about senior citizens who have lived in Haughville and been part of Flanner House’s rich history, about young black, white, and Latino children living in urban poverty, about mothers of children with special needs sharing their own mother stories, and about homeless women telling their stories of how they came to live at a shelter.
In the morality play, the Everyman realizes in the end that he walks alone in his life journey. The memoir, like our lives, remains deeply personal and individual, but by telling our story, we learn more about what that Everyman has learned from his life walk.