Virginia Stem Owens

Virginia Stem Owens


Virginia Stem Owens has written more than seventeen books, including four novels and nonfiction on a wide range of topics from media to metaphysics. She has been on the editorial board of Books & Culture since its inception. She also served for seven years as director of the Milton Center, an institute dedicated to fostering excellence in writing by Christians. Virginia lives in Huntsville, Texas, with her husband, David, a dog, two cats, and a varying number of chickens.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Remembering Your Life

“How was school today?” Isn’t that the first question most parents ask their children when they walk in the door? “How was work today?” we ask a spouse or friend, and, unless we’re very tired, we want someone to ask us a similar question. Why?

Say you go on a trip – an Alaskan cruise or a visit to a previously estranged relative. If you return and no one asks you to tell them about it, don’t you feel that the experience was somehow incomplete? If no one listens to the tale of our travels or trials, we feel a little, sometimes a lot, frustrated. The human race seems to have a deep seated need to narrate our lives to one another.

Again, why?

Because, I believe, we have an inborn need to give a shape to our lives instead of experiencing life as only a jumble of sensations -- just one darn thing after another, a string of unrelated occurrences. We do this by identifying ups and downs, what was good and what was bad about the day or trip or lifetime. We want to figure out what caused certain actions. Did we get fired because we were incompetent or because the boss was paranoid? Was the high score on the history test a result of hard study or pure luck?

And as we shape our story, we shape ourselves. We come to know, or at least think we know, ourselves. We all live inside some story. We have to. What, we want to know, does it all mean? And somehow we have settled on stories as the best tool with which to make meaning of our lives.

Memoirs Ancient and Modern

This is nothing new. From the furthest back evidence we have about human culture, people have been telling stories and preserving them even before they had written language. Egyptian hieroglyphics are picture books showing the exploits of kings. Even the cave paintings in Europe probably record how the tribe’s hunt went, thousands of years ago. Gilgamesh, the oldest written work so far discovered, tells the story of the king and his friend Enkidu. By far the largest part of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are narratives of heroes and villains, human tragedies and divine rescues.

Any number of venues today encourage us to “tell our story.” Support groups, twelve-step programs, therapists, retreat leaders, even media forums such as Oprah and public radio’s Storybook Project ask participants to divulge, if not their entire autobiographies, at least the parts relevant to its current audience.

As listeners we seem to have developed an almost insatiable hunger for “true stories,” or what book marketers classify as nonfiction. Witness also the upsurge in the past few years of so-called reality TV shows. And since the arrival of lipstick-size video cameras that can be strapped to one’s forehead, some people have begun streaming their daily lives on the internet. Stranger still, even more people log on to watch these unedited everyday lives. I’m taking it for granted that, since you are reading this, you are interested in reading and perhaps even writing the more shapely form of memoir than the streaming of digital dailiness provides.

Some Parameters and Pressure Points

Here are the basic parameters. Memoir is autobiographical, but not necessarily autobiography, a genre that generally spans the writer’s lifetime. Usually a memoir focuses on a slice of time in the writer’s life. Elie Wiesel’s Night records the period he and his father spent in a concentration camp during World War II. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions covers her first year of motherhood. In Down and Out in Paris and London George Orwell recounts his experience living among the poor of those two world capitals.

Occasionally a memoirist captures events in someone else’s life, usually someone close who has had a significant impact on the writer’s own life. For instance, I wrote a memoir of my grandfather’s last years, something he would not have been able or cared to do himself. However, as his life had affected his eight children and also his many grandchildren, of whom I was the eldest, I felt compelled to gather his material in a way that explored its meaning for three generations.

Memoirists have some advantage over writers of other genres. Novelists and poets have to spend time considering what they want to write. Their material has to be invented and decided upon. But the matter of memoir is simply there. It has already happened and, in most cases, it weighs upon the writer’s consciousness with so much pressure that, like toothpaste in a tube, it gets squeezed out eventually. For example, in Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye, I wrote about my mother’s decline into disease and dementia. At first, I kept a journal in order to preserve my own sanity. Later I used the journal to organize my memories and thoughts about what had happened in an attempt to try to understand how what had happened to her fit into my moral and spiritual universe. Elie Wiesel used memoir to make sense of the horrors of the concentration camp. In Walden, Thoreau worked to tie the natural world to human endeavor. So significant, so pressing were these preoccupations that they had to be dealt with in order to go on with life. We speak of recounting a tale or story; the verb recount is instructive. We are trying to make it all add up.

Thus, the writer takes what weighs on her or him (or as some would put it, what the Lord has laid on their hearts) and squeezes the material to move it from the inside to the outside where others may regard it, reflect upon it, and perhaps find a connecting thread to their own experience. Maybe it throws a little light on their path. At the very least, they know they are not alone. Others have been this way too.

My first observation to pass on to prospective memoirists actually came from a talk I heard Elie Wiesel give. He said, “Only write if you have to. And only write what only you can write.” Which I take to mean: the matter you write about should be elemental, understanding it essential to your sanity or at least your understanding of life. Writing is too hard to waste the effort on anything less fundamental.

Don’t be surprised to find that what you squeeze out of your tubular self lacks adequate substance for shaping into a compelling narrative. You are writing about your own life or that of someone close to you, so that makes you the expert, right? It’s not always that simple. The very leakiness of life, the way it pools and runs into other lives and events makes it impossible to isolate from other influences. Only inside the tube can we sustain the illusion of autonomous experience. Your life began long before you were born. The strands of DNA stretch back a long way. And those strands have been kneaded and coiled and strung out by other forces ever since your birth. Discovering what those forces are and writing about them with all the accuracy you are capable of makes up much of the fun of memoir-writing. What made your parents choose the place where they planted you on the planet? Finances, family connections, a thirst for adventure, their particular vocation, war? This may take some digging, during which these archetypal figures in your life may turn into fascinating characters, whether the evidence supports seeing them as heroes or villains or just people trying to do the best they knew how.

Researching Yourself?

What large social forces have been at work in your life, pushing or pulling you this way or that? This could take some research, if you want a meaty rather than a thin work. You must remember that younger readers will not have the same reference points you do. If, say, the civil rights movement became a pivot for the direction your life took, readers under forty will need a detailed and dramatic entry into that time to appreciate its impact on you. A generic reference will not do.

When Mariane Pearl wrote A Mighty Heart, the memoir of her husband Daniel Pearl’s capture and murder by terrorists in Pakistan, she turned what could have been a sob story into a powerful tale of triumph by giving us a richly textured account that included descriptions of the various ethnic groups that inhabit that country, its geography, various religious sects that threaten to tear it apart, the fascinating struggle between the military, the police, the national secret intelligence personnel, and the pervasive corruption infecting the government. All this was necessary to her vocation as a “truth warrior,” as she calls herself and her husband. What could easily have turned into a standard melodrama, dwelling primarily on her suffering and loss, deepened to give us more understanding of the incredibly complex forces that affected all our lives since September 11, 2001. While Mariane Pearl waited for news of her husband, she researched possible kidnappers on the internet, clipped newspaper stories, interviewed sheiks and mullahs, filled a wall with schematic links between possible suspects, made detailed timelines to help the military intelligence officer in charge of the search. When she left Pakistan, she took with her sixty notebooks filled with information collected during those terrible weeks. They provided the detailed information needed to make her story compelling.

Journals are essential to a memoirist. How you organize those depends on your personal proclivities. Some writers keep separate notebooks for interviews, book or internet research, and their own initial musings. Some do notecards or physical notebooks. Some keep all their notes on their computers. Whatever method you use, keep some version of it by your bedside. You may wake up in the middle of the night with a memory that needs snaring. Trust me. If you don’t pin it to paper then, it will have fled by morning. Memory is about the most elusive of all human gifts. Also, I have found that misty period when one is first coming to consciousness in the morning the moment when I sometimes receive my best insights into my material. Revelation often happens when our rational minds are muddled. That’s when the cap can come off the toothpaste.

Assessing Your Audience

Now we come to a delicate point. A glob of toothpaste has, by itself, little appeal. It is one thing – and often a very important thing – to write in your journal. It can be therapeutic and sometimes revelatory. But if you are writing in hope that others will be interested in and perhaps even edified by what you have to say, you must take heed of those hoped for readers, people who don’t know you and have their own lives to deal with. Their attention is at a premium. Bombarded as we are by demands on our consciousness, -- commercials, music, billboards, memos, email, junk mail – getting someone to sit down and read a book requires craft and deliberation.

The first step is to identify and imagine your intended audience. Consider how you operate as an audience for the books you choose. Are you drawn to cookbooks, mysteries, biblical scholarship? Each of those categories is geared to a different audience. Because I am blind myself, I avidly search out memoirs written by other blind people – not a large population, admittedly, but a devoted one. I also scavenge for memoirs by novelists I like. Currently, I’m reading the very funny account by Agatha Christie describing how she accompanied her archeologist husband on one of his expeditions to Syria. This year I found a wonderful little book, Am I Old Yet?, by a woman who confronted her pathological fear of aging by visiting regularly an old lady in a nursing home. I chose it because I’m no spring chicken myself and also because I cared for my own mother in her declining years. None of these books would appeal to everyone. But each connects to an audience who share their concerns. Make a list of categories of people who would have a genuine interest in your story. Mothers of small children? Recovering addicts? Winners of lottery jackpots?

As you write, you will have to split yourself in two. You will be the one telling the story, but from time to time you will have to switch into audience mode, surveying your work critically. Are you able to sustain your own interest in the narrative? Can you find a clear path through the events or do they become muddled and confusing? What’s missing? Perhaps a clear connection between ideas, a lack of specific illustration. Every few pages, it’s a good idea to stop and read aloud what you have written. The ear can hear things that the eye will miss.

The Elusive Voice

Which brings us to another essential aspect of memoir. Voice. In particular, yours. Your story consists not simply of the information you want to convey nor the way you organize it to produce the emotional effect you are aiming for. The best memoirs come to the reader saturated in an oral medium. Voice is an element harder to pin down than organization or facts. Voice brings the writer palpably into his or her own story. It makes sure the story enters the reader’s mind and heart through the ear as well as the eye. The narrator is not merely writing but speaking, even whispering, to the reader. The distance between them shrinks to no more than a few feet.

So how is the writer to project herself over not only physical but psychic or cultural distances that separate her from her audience? First of all, by not doing what will keep the reader at a distance. Too many writers, either beginning ones or those who are used to writing in another mode, adopt a position across the desk from their reader. They want to sound intelligent, prepared, in control of the interchange. Or worse, they stand behind a podium on a slightly elevated dais, looking out at the audience whose faces they can’t quite make out in the darkened auditorium. Writing in one’s own voice demands (unless you are a pompous ass and don’t mind sounding like one), that you come down from the platform or move around from the barrier of the desk and sit down beside your reader who doesn’t want to hear a sermon or listen to a lesson. The reader wants to know what it was like inside your skin as you lived your story. When you had that car wreck, you were not thinking in clear, schoolteacher accents. When you raised your right hand and took the oath of citizenship, your voice tightened and maybe broke. Lived experience cannot be conveyed by trying to sound like a TV anchor or your sixth grade teacher.

It’s easy enough to say, “Just be yourself. Speak in your own natural voice.” But which voice? We all speak differently in diverse situations. We speak to family members in a tone and with a vocabulary we tend to spiff up when we speak to employers, doctors, and prospective customers. Every relationship seems to require a slightly modulated tone and diction. In writing to strangers, we tend to be reserved or even shy. I wrote a letter this week to someone I don’t know who might want to buy some land from me. I wanted to provide the necessary information and sound like a competent business person. The voice was respectful but impersonal. Then I wrote an email message to my granddaughter, congratulating her for doing well in a cross-country race. The email message had whoops and exclamation points and private made-up words families develop over the years. It was personal and full of enthusiasm.

Please do not get the idea that finding a voice means simply reproducing spoken language, however. If that were all that was needed, you’d only have to switch on a tape recorder and start talking. In fact, you might try that sometime just to see how hopeless such a method would be. Spoken language tends to be a meandering river, full of sluggish hesitations and rushing, if incomprehensible babbling. It’s wonderful to tell a story face to face with a friend who knows your references, empathizes with your point of view, and can break in to have you clarify a point or straighten out the sequence of your thoughts. Chances are, a stranger’s eyes would begin to glaze over after a few minutes, however.

This is where art comes into the craft of writing. Your job is to make your written voice sustain the immediacy of a spoken voice, while at the same time maintaining the shapeliness of your narrative. Language that conveys your attitude and feelings experienced when you were living the story must be balanced with reflective language that keeps your story within the bounds of clarity and controls the shape of your narrative. Augustine’s Confessions reflects at length on his experiences from childhood (including infancy) to his conversion and commitment to a monastic life. But he uses the device of speaking his thoughts directly to his audience – God – in order to convey the passion he feels about God’s grace in his life. On the other end of the spectrum, Agatha Christie in her Syrian memoir keeps mainly to narrative, maintaining a comic voice throughout, poking fun at both the indigenous sheiks and workers and the French officials as well as the British crew’s inability to understand the language and the culture. Who knew a mystery writer could be so funny? Yet she never slips into the harsh or cynical voice today’s contemporary humorists bank on. By placing herself on the margin of the action, an observer rather than a main participant in the action, she keeps her view wide-angle and her voice sympathetic.

Discovering your proper voice and sustaining it is no easy juggling act. It will require experimentation, detached assessment, and no doubt multiple revisions. Again, reading your drafts aloud to yourself or others can be a great help. You will be able to detect any whining, sermonizing, or other undesirable tone creeping into your story. Nothing is so self-revelatory as writing, I have found.


As you can see, you must be exceedingly committed to chronicling this piece of your life to work this hard. Thus, you must treat your narrative with the utmost authenticity, never forgetting that your life is a gift to be honored with your best effort.

This requires excruciating honesty, although if that word makes you squirm, you can substitute accuracy. It is one of the maxims of writing that all writing is fiction. This is not only true but unavoidable. Even when you struggle to be as accurate as you can, as just as possible to the characters who inhabit your story, any individual’s knowledge of reality is inevitably partial., as St. Paul repeatedly points out, “We know in part.” Which does not mean there is no true and solid reality. Reality does not continually morph, amoeba-like, to suit our line of sight. But, like the blind people in the oft-repeated story of their attempt to describe an elephant, they know only what they have experienced, however accurate each is determined to be. One feels the tail, another the trunk, a third the large flapping ears. Writers must simply and humbly accept this limitation as they try to bear witness to the truth.

Which brings us to one of the stickiest problems afflicting the memoirist. It haunts you before you start writing and it will continue to hover over your shoulder as you are in the process. And it will linger long after your missive has been sent out into the world. It is just this: How much truth? Where do you draw the line? I find the question easier to answer when it concerns only myself. Not that I strip my soul bare in my books, revealing my deepest darkest secrets. Those are reserved for God. But what is relevant to the story I do try to record with sometimes painful honesty. Painful, I hope, only to me and not to my reader.

But little of what you write will concern only yourself. Your story contains other people too. Some of those are close enough to you that you worry about exposing them to criticism or ridicule. But to tell your story honestly might require describing them in less than a flattering light. What you see as merely an endearing if eccentric quirk of character they may see as an entirely admirable trait or even nonexistent. There are all sorts of ways to offend people who figure in your story, and I have probably perpetrated most of them. My long-suffering mother once requested, “When you write your next book, will you please make it about a subject other than our family?”

“But I changed the names,” I protested. She merely raised an eyebrow and shook her head.

Sometimes the difficulty runs deeper though. You may face the prospect of divulging secrets other people have worked hard to conceal. I have no absolute guidelines to provide you in this matter, only my own choices and experiences. At times I have known that what I wrote would not go down well with the person I felt was essential to my story. On the other hand, I never wrote with the intention of hurting that person. I just told the truth as I knew it.

Like most families, mine contains alcoholics, adulterers, and abusers. I don’t drag in unpleasant details unless they are relevant to relationships or events necessary to the story. But when they are key, I don’t leave them out. If you find yourself smartening up or smoothing over the truth, you need to rethink your position. Never write anything where truth is not honored. If you find that making your story public would cause more pain than you are willing to accept, write it for yourself and God.


Beckie said...

I wish I had been able to read Caring for Mother before becoming a caretaker for my own parents. This book will certainly help a lot of people in this situation by helping them to think about the big picture as they go through the day-to-day challenges. Thank you for sharing your honesty and wisdom.

Jessica said...

I feel like I've just had a short course in memoir. Thank you for sharing this! Are you currently teaching writing?

~Jessica in The Woodlands

Jessica said...

Wow! I feel like I've just had a short course in memoir. Thank you for this post! Are you teaching writing anywhere right now? I'd love to know.

Jessica - in The Woodlands, TX