Thoughts on Writing Memoir

Thoughts on Writing Memoir

A few weeks ago, we ran a guest blog by Heidi Croot called “Is Writing Memoir Worth it?” Heidi gave us many reasons why, for her, it definitely is, and today we are pleased to add to those thoughts with a guest blog from author Ronald Mackay.

Guest blog – Ronald Mackay

My friend and novelist made a provocative remark: “I’ve always considered memoir as the pursuit of self-indulgence, by a writer seeking immortality, for a life insufficiently lived.”

His observation troubled me. I write autobiographical stories. So I had to ask myself: When I write memoir, am I merely wallowing in self-indulgence? Is my writing no more than an attempt to dredge up compensation for an inconsequential life?

His remark has forced me to think, both about why and how I write memoir.

Nostalgia and redemption

In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Memoir inevitably means reflecting on one’s past. Nostalgia, like laughter, can be infectious. Both responses give us feelings of wellbeing. We enjoy the bitter-sweetness of remembering a cherished person, a place, or event – and the memory tends to be more sweet than bitter.

Nostalgia involves memories that we still hold dear, and those cherished memories are redemptive. And isn’t that redemption much more than mere self-indulgence?

Unresolved significance

While many of my memories are of beloved people or places, some of my most persistent memories are more puzzling than redeeming. These more puzzling memories bear the weight of what I have come to call “unresolved significance”.

Such memories haunt me precisely because they are both, compelling and bewildering. They can be distant in time, or recent. But they lodge uneasily like the filament of a stringy mango between teeth. They persist. They leave me disquieted and perplexed because their significance lies just beyond my reach.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a way of addressing such unresolved memories.

I respond, annually, to an invitation to write short stories, for Authors Showcase. Guests are invited to respond to a concise, suggestive prompt like: “An inspirational True Story” or “A life changing event” or “A Travel Highlight.” I address that challenge by striving to make sense of one of these persistent memories that, for me, are still replete with “unresolved significance”.

I use reflection and hindsight to figure out and give meaning to the past.

Resolution

“Why,” you may ask, “do I harbour so many puzzling memories?”

Well, for most of my life I’ve lived in foreign cultures, odd places, and in many foreign languages — so, I have almost continuously been puzzled – and, to tell you the truth, I often still am!

Jokingly, I call this process “my therapy” because of the relief that comes from finally arriving at an understanding. I end up experiencing the comfort of a resolution to what had previously troubled me as a mystery.

Now whether I capture the exact truth or not isn’t the point. The point is that writing my way to a resolution helps me better understand some of life’s complexities. Writing memoir, helps bring light and order to my life.

Take my hand

The challenge lies in finding the right words to capture the moral essence of things remembered, and by capturing that moral essence, to uncover their meaning.

Alan Benett says: “The best in reading is when you come across something – a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special to you. It’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

That’s what I try to do when I write memoir, for both my own consolation, and for the gratification of that reader who feels my hand clasp hers.

Meet Ronald Mackay

Ronald Mackay has published two books about working in Tenerife in the early 1960s and an account of his two years behind the Iron Curtain in Ceauşescu’s Romania. By penning personal stories, he rediscovers people he has loved and admired, places he has cherished, and many salient life experiences that have molded his character.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing Memoir

  1. A memoir is also very useful for later generations of family to help them know their ancestors and where they came from. As the family geneologist, I would love to have memoires of my ancestors.

    1. You are right, Margaret. Memoir serves many purposes including providing the context within which future generations can view their own lives. You offer an excellent reminder as to why we may owe it to other members of our families to record the most significant memories.

  2. My hand was in yours the whole time I was reading this, Ronald. This in particular clicked: “The point is that writing my way to a resolution helps me better understand some of life’s complexities. Writing memoir, helps bring light and order to my life.” Thank you — such a great piece.

    1. I’m so pleased that some of what I wrote resonated with you, Heidi. Much of what we memoirists write is as reassuring to ourselves as it may be interesting or even useful to others who are implicated in our network of family relations.

    1. Thank you, Felicity, for the reminder that thoughtful analyses of why we write memoir may be add significance and depth to the very act of writing memoir, itself.

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