“If you want to understand people, ask for their stories. Listen long enough and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”
-Sarah van Gelder (Yes! magazine)
In September, Belding Memorial Library (MA) offered a 4 week memoir writing class taught by Jane Roy Brown. Each week six of us, and Jane, sat in the childrens’ section of the library around a knee-high table learning how to write our lives.
Sitting in the library’s childrens’ section helped conjure up some memories. Long ago I sat in a big, puffy red naugahyde chair and started to read the Bible. I don’t remember my age, but my feet did not reach the hassock. That was when I first learned, to my amazement, that Jesus was not a Christian. It took me a few moments to figure out why.
Unlike autobiography (“Just the facts, m’am”), memoir is personal recollection. Fact matters, but story matters more. Writing style matters, but narrator’s voice matters more. Thoreau could have written his autobiography, but instead he wrote “Walden: Or Life in the Woods,” one of the best known and most influential memoirs written.
When I started the class, I assumed I’d write about the exciting parts of my life: checking for a bomb under Betty Williams’ car, rolling under a car to avoid being trampled by mounted police, getting arrested in front of the White House, keeping house at Gampo Abbey, etc. When I sat down to write, the first thing I remembered was how one of my aunts would sleep on a couch in her living room with the television on. As I told the story, I watched my family’s interactions, rhythms, oddities. After fifty years, the story still lived in me.
Autobiography: I was arrested with Quakers in 1971 in front of the White House. Memoir: My family is a rich jungle of attitudes, beliefs, history, secrets, love, anger, which somehow led to this particular young woman being arrested in front of the White House.
Autobiographies, says reviewer Jennie Yabroff, “… were useful for students of history, and, occasionally, were even readable.” Students of history find that using the Bible to track down historical events is somewhat hit-or-miss. Precise geography, accurate time-lines, detailed descriptions are secondary to the main purpose: telling the personal, meaningful stories of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. The Bible is memoir.
Our spiritual ancestors are sharing “not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”