Guest Blog by Mary Gottschalk – “The Four R’s of Memoir Writing”

The Four R’s of Memoir Writing


Mary Gottschalk


In recent blogs, I’ve pondered the importance of letting stories age, much like fine wine, to allow the author time to distinguish between “what happened” and “why it matters.”

It strikes me that there is another way to look at the value of allowing memoirs to steep for a while.  In a 2009 study of the linkages between memory and truth, John Brewer explores four elements in the process of trying to explain the kind of societal disruption we associate with Bosnia or Rwanda.  The four elements, or four R’s are:

  • Recognition – What really happened?  Was the damage intentional or simply an unfortunate confluence of events?
  • Responsibility – Was somebody at fault?  If so, who?
  • Retribution – If someone was at fault, is punishment warranted?  If so, what should that be?
  • Reconciliation – What steps can be taken—or have been taken—to offset the adverse effects of the adverse events, to turn the experience to my advantage?  What is the life lesson to be learned from overcoming the challenge?

The first three elements carry with them nuances of anger, a sense of victimhood, and a need to “make somebody pay.”  While my story in Sailing Down the Moonbeam was hardly of societal proportions, Brewer’s analysis seems relevant to my own experience as I tried to craft the memoir.

In the earliest versions of Moonbeam, it was quite clear that I’d suffered at the hands of a neglectful mother and a husband who cheated on me.  Alone in a foreign country, with no support systems to speak of, I was feeling very sorry for myself.  And I was angry.  I didn’t intend to publish a memoir that would embarrass my mother or my ex-husband, but many of the words on the page would have done just that if they had found their way into print.

By the time I finally published the memoir, I saw things very differently.  I understood that my mother had been responding to her own demons, and had never intended to hurt me.  I recognized how many times I’d rejected my husband in small but very hurtful ways that pushed him into the arms of another woman. I acknowledged that I had been alone in a foreign country because I chose to abandon my Wall Street career for a sailing adventure.

But perhaps the most significant difference was that I had come to understand just how much I’d benefited from being so far outside my comfort zone, from being in a place—physically and emotionally—where for the first time in my life, I had to make decisions based on what I wanted instead of what others wanted me to do or be.  Instead of being angry, I was grateful.

While only a small fraction of memoir writers today have to deal with tragedy on the scale of Rwanda, it strikes me that many are a response to some adversity that the author has not yet come to terms with. I find such memoirs to be painful reading and often wonder how credible a witness the author really is.

Leaving time to let go of the anger and sense of victimhood are, I believe, essential to gaining the perspective that makes a memoir a compelling and powerful story for the reader.

What has been your experience with memoirs?  Writing them and/or reading them?

The URL link for John Brewer’s article is:    The title is:  Memory, truth and victimhood in post-trauma societies



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  1. It was a pleasure to take that journey of discovery with you, Mary. It would have been easy for both of us to blame someone else for where we wound up. But our lives and our memoirs are better for working our way to reconciliation. Terrific post.

  2. Thanks Carol … What was so interesting about Brewer’s article … and a post Jerry Waxler did on the “hero’s journey” … is that so many of us have such similar emotional experiences. Places and people change, but the emotional journey is common ground. I’m lucky to have shared the experience of coming to reconciliation with you … it was a lovely journey.

  3. Mary, excellent post! I think the following is all important: “Leaving time to let go of the anger and sense of victimhood are, I believe, essential to gaining the perspective that makes a compelling and powerful story for the reader.” I have difficulty reading memoirs still so raw with anger and pain; often I have to set them aside in favor of something lighter to read. Thanks for the four R’s!

    • Sherrey … I share your difficulty in reading memoirs that are “raw.”

      What matters in life is not so much the challenges we face, but how we handle them. We all know stories of those born with a silver spoon who wasted their lives, and those born with the odds against them who were models for us all.

      I don’t “know” that time is the most important factor in deciding which side of the line you fall on . . . but getting the longer perspective never hurt.

  4. Excellent post with sound advice, Mary. I think there’s a fine line between bringing the reader into a raw experience ,yet having enough emotional distance from that experience to see it as a story with lessons learned. Framing it within the Four R’s is an excellent technique for allowing it to “steep for a while”. I also think it’s important to weave in some light moments into those dark moments to give the reader a break. Thanks, as always for another insightful post. You always get me thinking!

  5. Thanks Kathleen. I like your idea about the “light moments,” but I think there’s a distinction between the wonderful moments of humor or comic relief, and the lightness that comes when you see your story as part of the universal human condition, not as just your own experience or fate. I’ve just finished a memoir of sorts in which the author was still very emotionally involved with the story, and the “light moments” were not enough to lift you out of the morass of misery and misfortune.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly, Mary. The first few drafts of Bristol boyz Stomp were written by an angry, depressed woman who wanted those responsible for her brother’s murder to pay.
    Letting it brew and of course with the help of amazing editors we crafted a story that was more about how I doubt with the tragedy and found a way to move on.
    Thank you for once again sharing such insightful information for us memoir writers or any genre writer…

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