not an autobiography
As important as what a memoir must be is what it cannot be. Memoir is not autobiography. By far most memoirists are not people whose lives compel them to write a full-blown autobiography. If you are the first Black woman to become Vice-President of the United States, readers will want to know about your childhood, your education, and even how you manage to get dinner on the table while being the Vice-President. Thus, you will need to write an autobiography. And you’ll call on professional writers to help you craft memorable work.
The rest of us who wish to share part of our stories with the wider community have a humbler purpose. Everyone has fields of expertise. That doesn’t necessarily mean an ability that takes years of school or practice, like playing the piano well or teaching grade although those certainly are important and interesting skills. An area of personal expertise can be as simple as developing a satisfying relationship with a rescue dog. Yet, these smaller-scale accomplishments offer opportunities to develop compelling narratives that will hold readers on the page from the first word to the last.
finding myself in your story
The reasons I would read your memoir differ fundamentally from my motivation for reading Kamala Harris’ autobiography. I’ll read her book to learn about Kamala. When I read your book, I’ll be hoping to learn something about myself.
That’s right! The kicker of writing a memoir is that it isn’t “about” the writer. It’s about his/her/their field of expertise that can have meaning for you in your life. If, as a memoirist, I stray into simply drafting my own story just to tell you about me, you aren’t going to read it. Even if you thought you’d like it and bought it, you wouldn’t finish it. Reading must nourish us in a way. When a memoir does what it is supposed to do, the reader learns something they can apply to their own life. What they learn may even be a universal truth they already knew, but the memoir heightens its value for them.
finding the universal
The claim I make here is one of the seven principles of memoir writing, developed by Marion Roach Smith. She calls it the “Need for the Universal.” https://marionroach.com/?s=need+for+universal
As I continue the challenge of writing my memoir, I must find a way to universalize my argument. Where in my story would others see themselves? Six drafts of my memoir imprinted themselves on my computer screen before I finally discovered the four-leaf clover, the universal factor in the story I wanted to tell.
the way I was
In the early years of mothering my children who struggled with progressive myoclonic epilepsy, a rare brain disorder, I became overwhelmed with the effort to find a remedy for their illness and to care for them completely on my own. Eventually, however, I realized I needed to step back from their full-time care and share that responsibility with others more experienced than myself.
what i became
The universal exists in the tension, what Roach Smith names “the gap” between the two. https://marionroach.com/?s=create+the+gap What stood between me and the best possible life for my children? It was the dread of a word freighted with misunderstanding, “institutionalization.” I needed to move from a place where no matter how tremendous overwhelmed I became; I was never going to be “one of those parents who put their children away” to realizing that good residential care for children and adults with developmental disabilities can be an exceptionally good thing.
a better understanding
The right place not only provides a happy, productive life for the residents but also involves their families in a wider community of support and engagement, which empowers advocacy and nourishes friendships. If a family is fortunate enough to find a genuinely good residential situation for their challenged family member both that child/adult and the whole family will lead fuller, richer, more satisfying lives.
As I write and construct this narrative, I must keep in mind that there is a full range of residential options for persons with developmental disabilities. We were lucky to find Misericordia. But there’s a larger principal at work in my argument. It is that a broad supportive community of some kind is a necessity of life for any parent but most especially for parents of children with special needs. It’s not easy to find that community but it does exist and it’s worth seeking out. More than anything I want my memoir to say to other parents:
don’t do this alone
You deserve to be happy. You can find joy in parenting your special child who brings unique blessings into your life. But it won’t happen if you’re exhausted by their care. Help is out there. If you don’t have time to look for it, ask for the help of your family.
Our children need our advocacy, and we can only bring that to the table if we nourish ourselves as well as them.