It's Not About Me

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Whenever I sit down to write anything memoir-ish, my first thought is always, “I don’t want this to be about me.” That is, I know I must resist the temptation to write the story so that friends and strangers can finally learn what it was really like to be Bill at age 10 or 20 or 40, to clear that great mystery up once and for all. Instead, I want to use the experiences I had at 10 or 20 or 40 as the raw clay out of which I’ll hopefully craft something compelling and transformative that leaves the reader thinking not about me but about themselves.

That said, I am the protagonist of these stories, and to tell them I have to render these experiences in a way that someone who isn’t me could imagine my first kiss, or my first date with my wife, or the first touchdown I caught as if it had happened to them. The best way to do this is write about, say, catching touchdowns for someone who has never caught a touchdown, who doesn’t even like football. This prevents me from making any assumptions about my own experiences, requires me to boil everything that has happened down to its most human elements – fear, love, regret, yearning, shame, or triumph.

This goes for absolutely everything I write about. I try write about sex as if the reader has never had sex, or going for a walk as if the reader has never gone for a walk. I try to imagine that the reader is completely new to this planet. This helps me feel new to this planet, helps me see my own experiences afresh, as something that happened not so much to me but to a human who happened to share my name.

If I succeed not only is the story more readable, more accessible, but I also believe it helps remind us that the particulars of our lives are largely irrelevant. I hear people say, “You have no idea what I’ve been through,” and think, “It doesn’t matter.” I’ve written enough memoir, and read enough memoir, and taught enough memoir to know that everyone’s unique, inimitable journey is driven by and toward something common to us all. To believe otherwise is to seek my identity in something as transient as the weather, rather than what is as constant as the sun.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.