Guest Blog by Mary Gottschalk – “The Four R’s of Memoir Writing”Posted by bhayden on Aug 12, 2013 in Blog, Guest Blogger | 7 comments
The Four R’s of Memoir Writing
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: http://bit.ly/16H5iCI The title is: Memory, truth and victimhood in post-trauma societies
For more information about Mary Gottschalk and her work, follow these links.
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