About five years ago I stopped writing fiction and began writing only about my own life, writing which took the form of the memoir that this website supports as well as a daily column for Author magazine. I have had the pleasure of interviewing many memoirists, like Wild author Cheryl Strayed and Townie author Andre Dubus III. I have also begun teaching memoir writing. I have learned much from all this storytelling, but two things stand out to me now.
First, if I am going to tell a story about my own life, I must ask: Why would this be of use to someone else? Why would someone who isn’t me or has never heard of me care about what happened to me? To answer this question is to find the true gift the story wants to offer. Now my suffering—which every story I have ever told includes—is not just some crap I went through, but is the course by which I arrived at an understanding greater than my own victory and defeat. Now my life is in service to life.
Second, whenever I read someone else’s story, I become that person. I was Cheryl Strayed while reading Wild and I was also Andre Dubus while reading Townie. I always become the narrator, whether that narrator is a middle-aged man like myself, or twenty-something year-old woman like Strayed. The story is always about me. I am the hero of every story ever told.
This yin and yang of storyteller and audience, of self and selflessness, is identical to the balance necessary for parenting, particularly parenting children with special needs. To have a child, to hold a newborn in your arms, is to understand immediately, instinctively, and irrefutably that life is always calling us to serve life. My life, it turns out, is not just some meaningless game I needed to win, but is a portal through life both appears and is sustained. To hold an infant in your arms is to understand, if only for a moment, the absurdity of all victory and loss.
And yet every single experience I have ever had is for me. Every gift I have ever given, every meal I have ever shared, every story I have ever told was for my benefit. In helping Sawyer learn to communicate, I learned to communicate; in helping Sawyer learn to listen, I had to learn to listen. I cannot give any gift until I have first received it. All this parenting, all this helping, all this teaching, required me to summon life to me so that I might share it with someone I love.
Moreover, the value of helping Sawyer, of summoning all this life energy to me to help him, will be measured in how much I have grown, not in how much he has grown. He will grow as he summons life to himself. That is his job, not mine. I cannot do that for him, no matter how much I love him. Nor would I want to do that for him. To summon his life for him would be to deny him his greatest and really only pleasure, would be to forget that the flower loves to grow as much as the gardener loves to water it.
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, or contact me directly.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.