By Karen Wills
In her novel, Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell has her somewhat fictionalized version of T.E. Lawrence a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia announce his intent to write a memoir. Then he asks, “Have you heard the old joke about Job sitting on his dunghill?” Lawrence goes on, “He tells his friends all his troubles and at the end one of them says, ‘Yes, but you know…there could be a book in it!’”
The book referred to would be a memoir. But what does that mean? According to my Random House Dictionary, it’s “records of facts or events in connection with a particular subject, historical period, etc. as known to the writer or gathered from special sources.”
People send their memoirs out into the world for varied reasons. Montana’s Laura Munson wrote, This is Not the Story You Think It Is, about her decision to refuse to see herself as the victim in the breakup of her marriage.
A friend of mine who worked both as a teacher and school psychologist gained wisdom about American public education both in the South during the Civil Rights Era and on through the days of No Child Left Behind. She is writing a memoir using her varied experiences to explain her philosophy of education. The stories that shaped her views are gripping and credible.
I had a teaching experience of my own that showed me clearly the power of a well-written memoir. A student of mine was flirting with the idea of admiring Hitler. I assigned him Elie Wiesel’s wrenching Night followed by the same author’s Dawn. These depict the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath. I followed that with parts of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. By semester’s end, my student had moved 180 degrees from his first leanings. That’s the power of a courageous memoirist.
My son has suggested that I write a memoir as my life has always fit into the forefront of the social movements and trends of my lifetime. Honestly, I don’t have the nerve. My adventures feel private and my wisdom too often the hard-won result of foolishness I’d rather keep to myself.
But here’s to the brave, vulnerable, generous people who share their stories and views in memoirs. Humanity needs them.
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