Digging for the “so what” of your life
Writing a memoir comes down to providing a reckoning of your life. And as such, when you reach a certain age, you realize it's high time. Your reckoning doesn't have to be a book, it can be a few paragraphs, a few pages, a short video. Probably not a Tweet...
But everyone can do it. And everyone should.
I started with two basic questions, both very much part of the journalistic process, which was my work for so many years. It served as a good organizing tool.
First question: what happened? In journalism that's the basic who-what-where-when-and-why.
But in writing your memoir, the real question is more pointed: What happened to you? You have to think about that question in the context of your entire life. What are the events … and people ...and experiences that comprise the span of time you call your life.
This reckoning is a process I highly recommend. I think you'll find, as I did, that those defining moments initially appear obvious – those are the ones you've chosen to keep first and foremost. For me it was when my daughter died. And when my sister ended her life. Research shows that unhappy events have more than twice the impact of happy events on our lives, so I guess that's why those two tragedies stood out in my mind.
But there are other moments – perhaps equally defining, maybe even more defining – that are not readily available to you – your memory needs to retrieve them. And, sometimes, it needs to recognize that they are even there.
These are the defining moments you have to go digging for. If you dare. These are likely places you don't want to go.
For me it was recounting the pain of living with an incurable severe stutter. Stuttering wasn't going to kill me; there were many people living with lots worse conditions; how bad could it be?
It turned out I had to tell the story of how bad it could be. Luckily I already knew I could survive it. The story was in the how – how I lived with this loss, this limitation, and how I learned to live well.
The next question you must ask yourself is also journalistic: things happened to you, but so what? Why is what happened to you important? In journalism we call this the “nut graf” of your story. It tells people why they should keep reading.
So, I had to figure out what my defining moments meant. What did they add up to?
That's when the magic of connecting the dots happened for me. And “It's Hard Being You” began to take shape.