“To write one’s life is to live it twice.”
So says my first memoir teacher, Patricia Hampl. Certainly, writing about your life has all kinds of benefits, from better understanding the past to capturing the essence of your memories in order to share with others. Writing about life helps us to heal, record, remember, and be remembered—but how do you do it best? Since the time that Patricia Hampl helped create the form of the contemporary memoir during the 1990s, the form itself has grown dramatically. Now that there are so many options, how can you find the best shape for your life story?
My spring 2020 online class “Telling Life Stories” paces you carefully through eight weeks of contemplation and exploration as you create your own approach to a life story. Leveraging the gift of solitude while sustaining online interactions with me and other readers, you’ll move at your own pace, reading and listening to authors share their work, engaging in writing exercises and receiving feedback, and considering key themes of writing and life.
“I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.”
Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor always insisted that she had to write her way into a story—and that kind of blind exploration may be all the more important for nonfiction writers, even though, ironically, we’ve already lived the lives that we’re writing about. One important principle of writing about your life, though, is that you’re not necessarily the expert—at least, not yet.
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.”
When you’re looking for what you know—or what you might like to learn—about life (especially your own), it’s best, as memoirist Vivian Gornick reminds us, to consider both the “situation” and the “story” because, no matter what you’re writing about, there is always something that got you started—and something that emerges. In life stories, Gornick insists, the event or memory that you start out with (i.e. the situation) may not be at all the meaning that you end up with (i.e. the story).
“What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.”
So, maybe we can’t live forever—but our stories can. Author Tim O’Brien is famous for blending forms, skirting around facts, questioning reality, and resisting a single answer. But for all of his play with forms, he never fails to tell a good story: one that captures our attention because whatever question he’s pursuing has also captured his. Stories, after all, he says, are all about connection. In telling them, we not only learn about ourselves, but also create a way for people to understand us.
“Tell the truth, but tell is slant.”
So how “true,” then, do these stories need to be? Poets like Emily Dickinson have given modern memoirists plenty to think about, reminding us that sometimes, what is most “true” is more emotional than factual. The question, then, is how much “truth” is enough? How can you tell a story when information is missing, memories are incomplete, or the people who were there can’t agree on how things happened? At times like these, poetry can indeed help us, offering new forms for life stories from lyricism, braided narrative, and vignettes.
“I prefer to be lost.”
Today, there are as many forms for life stories as there are life stories themselves. As essayist Lia Purpura has shown us by drawing on her roots as a poet, it’s possible to tell the story of your life, even if you don’t have it all figured out—and sometimes, being lost can in fact be quite exciting. By making leaps from concept to concept, image to image, the power of associations themselves can become their own kind of story: one that might, for you, be the one you want to tell.
Whatever your background, whatever your story, come take some time with me this spring to lean into the quiet of some restful hours to explore the varieties of nonfiction and to find a shape for that most essential story of all: you.
Susan V. Meyers has lived and taught in Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico. She earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from the University of Arizona, and she currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Seattle University. Her fiction and nonfiction have been supported by grants from the Fulbright foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, as well as several artists residencies. Her novel Failing the Trapeze won the Nilsen Award for a First Novel and the Fiction Attic Press Award for a First Novel, and it was a finalist for the New American Fiction Award. Other work has recently appeared in Per Contra, Calyx, Dogwood, The Portland Review, and The Minnesota Review, and it has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.