On Writing Memoir, A Series

The impulse behind writing memoir is sometimes hard to understand. Memoir makes public that which is often painfully private. Sometimes the impulse is to create a narrative that tells a particular story or part of a story; sometimes it’s the desire to gain control of one’s own narrative while making that story available to the world.
In 2019, I taught a class in Literary Nonfiction that examined a range of texts, many of which were memoir. We read excerpts from The Diaries of Susanna Moodie and the first two chapters of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. This is the C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame. His memoir is subtitled “A Spiritual Biography,” which gives the book a very particular direction. However, some of Lewis’s friends and colleagues were so mystified by the book they called it “Surprised by Jack.” The book that most interested students was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed is a fine writer and speaker, and she writes openly and directly about her experiences, which creates a particular kind of vulnerability many of my students found arresting.
I’ve been writing memoir for a few years now, and I think the desire to write my own story began with a degree of vanity. Perhaps vanity is too strong, but it certainly began with the desire to talk about myself. At some point in my thirties I wrote a piece on losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven. I wrote that piece because I wanted to be published. I wrote it because I wanted to share the story—in a self-centred sort of way—but I hadn’t yet fully realized how much this incident had altered my life. I submitted the piece for a segment on CBC Radio—they didn’t pick it up. I honestly think it was too soon, anyway. But I kept returning to that accident over the years, each time recasting it so I could try and understand it in a different way.
For me, writing memoir forces me into a position of an observer in relation to myself as a character. It isn’t always about facts, but it is about confronting the events of my life with enough honesty and vulnerability to do justice to the narrative. In that way, I’m writing about myself, while that self becomes a character with whose life I happen to be intimately familiar. It can be an exhausting exercise.
I want to share several pieces over the next few weeks, some of which have already appeared on this blog. However, I think they are worth returning to, if for no other reason than to show them as part of a series.
The first piece is called “On Smoking,” originally published by Hippocampus Magazine in 2017. This piece had several iterations over a number of ears. It’s about my dad more than it’s about the accident that took my sight. But you can find it there—the accident—forming a divide in my experience. My dad died in 2005, but his birthday was March 13, a fact he always reminded us of when feeling particularly unlucky and sorry for himself. But this seems like a good place to begin—with my dad, because of his birthday, and because even fifteen years on from his death I can still hear his voice in my head, offering criticism and giving advice.