Are you brave enough to write memoir?

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Life writing is not for the faint of heart. As philosopher Julia Kristeva once wrote, writing is one of the most daring explorations of all because it delves into how we are constituted as subjects (The Portable Kristeva). A much simplified translation of Kristeva’s statement is that while writing in a genre like memoir we discover who we are and how we became who we are.

Psychoanalytic theorist Daniel Stern calls the  domain of the verbal self (the written self) the narrative self, ‘a laboratory of self-identity’. According to Stern as you work through a genre such as memoir, the writing process acts as a sort of laboratory in which a narrative self is forged, mistakes are corrected, elaborations are added, and adjustments are fine-tuned.

Autobiographical gura Sidonie Smith claims genres such as memoir function to help people believe in deep selves. Quoting scholar Michel de Certeau she writes, “To make people believe is to make them act. But by a curious circularity, the ability to make people act – to write and to machine bodies – is precisely what makes people believe.” Autobiographical storytelling then, becomes one way through which people believe themselves to be ‘selves’.

These theories might well explain why we have a desperate need to preserve our photographs and retell our stories whenever tragedy strikes. The process of memory becomes important to us in the aftermath of a tragedy because we need the images and words–the memories–to remind us of who we are. To put our selves back together, to re-corpreolize our selves. Photographs and storytelling remind us of our unique pasts, of the history that has made us who we are.  We instinctually reach for our photos because we will need them to reconstruct ourselves long after the raging forest fires, torrential rains and floods have gutted our homes. The urge to process and reprocess the details of a catastrophe through storytelling fulfill the natural human need to reset our identity buttons, to discover the person who was before the storm or fire.

The same principle applies to memoir. Many people use the memoir writing process to aid in their recovery from trauma, or to give their memory a boost. Others are surprised by how they view themselves as they weave in and out of memoir through its composite voice.

Do you have any comments on this concept? Why do you think the first things disaster victims grab when fleeing their homes are their photographs? Why are their memories so important to them? Share your comments?

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