Memory to Meaning

Mine is not a hero’s journey.

I have not been a warrior,(1) nor a war correspondent.(2) I did not track down an entire Eastern European national soccer team and defeat them at tennis on a whim,(3) nor invent the Cosmopolitan.(4) I have never been a violent drug addict, or even purported to have been one.(5) I have not struggled through a nightmare of mental illness,(6) or had my life turned inside out and mangled by the madness of those I was dependent upon for love.(7)

In the end, I suppose, the story I have to tell is no more or less than any of those alluded to above. It seems far less to me: far less dramatic, far less moving, far less devastating, far less meaningful. I believe this is largely because I am the one who has already lived all the experiences that make up my life, my journey, my story. It will read far differently to those who are not me.

But for them to read it, for them to ponder the words that tell the tale of a life that has unfolded as has mine, I will first need to tell it; I will need to actually open my memory — open my soul — and put down upon the page, one word after another, the story that, of all the stories that have ever been told in the entire sweep of human existence, is mine alone to tell.

It is not enough to merely tell a series of events and experiences, either. I must ultimately craft my life story, shape it; I must discern in it an arc of meaning, or maybe even more than one. This is what distinguishes memoir from autobiography: memoirs, like the great specimens alluded to at the opening of this post, are works of literary art. They do more than diligently narrate the events of a life: they make from the events of a life a work of meaning that holds some relevance to the shared human experience of the reader. Like a sculptor finding a statue in a block of Portuguese marble, I must find the story that is in my life. I must, not give my lived experience a meaning (for it is rife with meaning already), but rather I must discover what meaning it best conveys it a given form, and find the form that best conveys the meaning that feels most genuine.

These are not small tasks. Then again, creative writing, memory work, myth making — these are not small things to attempt. But they are all worth attempting, and with all my being I look forward to the labors, almost as much as the fruits.

1) Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
2) Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So
3) Tony Hawks, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis
4) Toby Cecchini, Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life
5) James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
6) Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind
7) Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors

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