If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to
live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
What will be lost when we're no longer here to tell our stories? Incidental yet important information: insights, personalities, jokes, favorite recipes, genealogies. On a more subtle level, gone will be the living connection between past, future, and present.
Creating a memoir is an opportunity to engage in a dynamic process of recollection and integration, one that can deepen and expand our own lives and those of generations to come. Memoirs underscore connection and the singularly human tradition of telling our stories to our closest group.
Philosopher Nathan Rotenstreich has said that "tradition" supposes a relation to "something documentary."
The European aristocracy and American upper class have a legacy of commissioned portraits of family members, capturing the visual manifestation of the subject's interior life through his or her posture, light or lack of it in the eyes, the shape of the mouth, set of the jaw, and personal choices in clothes, hairstyles, jewelry, props, and setting. The artist is the medium. A portrait, however insightful, doesn't record the complex history of the individual or family.
A memoir does. The memoirist can present his or her interior as well as exterior life, with details that allow the reader to dive in. Whether or not it is accompanied by e-books or other technology-dependent media, the tactile memoir is an intimate encounter. And it's archival.
Still, why do we want to tell our personal histories? Journalist Joan Didion put it succinctly: "We tell stories in order to live." It is now well-documented that telling stories benefits the storyteller as well as the recipient. Again, why? Perhaps it is because revealing our interior life and perspective makes us feel known and acknowledged. Perhaps it is partly because it gives us a way to remember and honor, forgive, apologize to, and acknowledge others in our lives.
Another aspect we've thought about is how a memoir reveals the family and culture. By sharing our personal history, we are adding our experiences to the stream of memories that flows through our families and time.
The fragmentation of contemporary life may well cause most of our ancestral stories to disappear within a generation or two. The half-life of knowledge comes into play here. We're so busy! And we have Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Tivo, Pandora...
Some of us don't consider our histories important enough to save. But social theorists are telling us that the absence of stories, the de-storification of our lives, is contributing to social alienation, a collective amnesia that imprisons younger people in emotional isolation. It takes more than FaceTime, Geni, and genealogy research to reflect and reveal ourselves.
Have you noticed the eagerness of young children asking for stories about when they were babies? And stories about when their parents were young children. They drink them in. They love hearing about our mistakes and mishaps, and how we recovered from them. They love hearing about our desires and successes. This eagerness hints at the importance of being connected and gaining an understanding of who we are. We need to believe in our own humanity and in our significance within the human community. We need our own stories because they lift us out of isolation into affirmation.
I could go on but I'll finish this up. Another function of personal histories is that they ensure family continuity and the continuity of family itself. And with the future arriving every second and demanding a revised present, they provide stability. The ongoing-ness of the stories and personalities as they pass from generation to generation is as important as the inherited shape of the nose or presence of a bump on a left ear.
So a memoir is a three-way conversation between the past, present, and future. A vital connection between then and now, and later, stories overwhelm isolation. Even though it takes time and thought, please provide future generations with your most profound gift: your legacy of stories.