Do you remember the scene in “The Bridge of Madison County” when the children of Meryl Streep’s character discover a chronicle of her life after she had died?
In her memoirs, they learned their mother had a brief interlude with a traveling photographer (played by Clint Eastwood) and they were quick to condemn her.
She likely knew her journal would be read, so why do you think she spoke her truth?
Perhaps it was to share the reality of her life and the sacrifice she made to keep the family together by staying married to a man who needed her?
Do memories of the past whisper to you? Does your narrative inspire a memoir?
Our lives don’t have to be as dramatic as the story told in “Bridges of Madison County” to be of value to our legacy.
Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel once said, “Without memory there is no life.”
Michel de Montaigne, a key figure in the French Renaissance and believed to be the father of the essay, composed many letters to Étienne de la Boétie, with whom he formed a close and lasting friendship. The death of Boétie left a painful void in Montaigne’s life.
It is said Montaigne began writing to Boétie to help him cope with the loss of a friend. He wanted to be known as he really was. Those letters were saved and later published.
There are many reasons for us to reminisce.
Susan Kirschner is retired as a senior lecturer in the humanities department at Lewis and Clark College, where she taught creative nonfiction, including memoirs.
She says we record memoirs for a variety of reasons, including to help us overcome and heal events of the past. It gives us perspective when we look back.
“Memories can be unreliable,” she says. “Some people check and re-check their recall and talk to people involved, others look up documents that may trigger memories.”
Kirschner says it’s helpful to understand how memories work. Implicit memory works in the subconscious, taking in texture, sound, touch of clothes and smells. Explicit memory is in the conscious — it records what you do and feel.
“The brain is enormously efficient taking in all stimuli and places that we can retrieve,” Kirschner says. “All we need is a stimulus that triggers a memory, such as the smell of a roast in the oven, things closest to the center in the brain. All senses control memory and if you want you can recover them.”
Write a memoir to chronicle the amazing life you’ve led, she says. Write to keep family history alive, to feel heard or to explain certain conflicts from your perspective. It could give your own life more meaning because you share facts of your life that aren’t discussed in the present, for whatever reason.
Perhaps you suffer from misunderstandings or regrets and you want to explore your intentions at the time, and you want your memoir to be discovered when you are gone.
Writing a memoir gives you an opportunity to imagine your life from another’s point of view. You may wish to control your own narrative and be the primary source of that story, Kirschner says.
Do the work
How do you get started? “Start writing,” she says. “As you write you could remember more and more. Ask a sibling or other family member their memories and in time a narrative will unfold. He or she could have a totally different perspective.”
Perhaps a friend could describe a room, or what was going on at a particular time. “Writing has the power to be intimate but distant,” Kirschner says. “When you know who you are, you are not lonely.”
Keep notes, tickets to events and places you’ve been. Keep a journal about thoughts and feelings that have meaning in your life.
“There is no one way to write a memoir or to stimulate memory,” Kirschner says, so if you join a memoir-writing group, don’t be discouraged if someone criticizes you. Their purpose might just be to encourage your efforts.
Pick one happening in your life and start writing. Make a list of your early memories. They can help you put your life in order and make sense of it to children and other family members.
Intuitively pick one memory and write the story behind the memory. Keep a list of memories recalled as you write. A memoir can give you a sense of purpose when your once active work life is finished. Written memories are immortal.
Begin to answer questions about your ancestry, home and family life, education, relationships, children, vocations and words of wisdom. For more help, visit a personal historian like trenacleland.com.