The other night I was talking to a friend that is trying to write his memoir. He’s an articulate man that has lived a life full of adventures, difficult choices, and ideas that were often several decades ahead of their time. He is also a writer; always has been. But his efforts so far at this memoir were not going so well and he knew it. His problem, like many first-time memoirists, was what Theo Pauline Nestor accurately identified as culpability. The memoir simply won’t work unless the author represents his complete role in how his life has unfolded. To do this, he cannot be a victim or a hero; he must be an equal participant in every event. My friend, like most of us, saw himself sometimes as a hero, sometimes as a victim, but rarely anything else. This was the world he was writing and, I’m quite certain, the world he has lived in all of his.
I began talking to him about culpability, about compassion, about his role in what he saw as both the good and the bad in his life. I asked if he was open to rewriting the story of his life a little, if maybe the bad guys he’d encountered weren’t really bad but people like him who made mistakes, who perceived him as a threat when he’d meant no harm and acted accordingly. “But there are bad people who do bad things,” he said. “What about the Holocaust?”
I didn’t answer that particular question, and fortunately he did not pursue it. He did not pursue it because despite the nightmare of genocide, my friend still wanted to write his memoir and that memoir still wouldn’t work as a story if he did not portray himself as an equal participant in all that transpired. Like all life stories, my friend’s story is worth telling. There is a gift within that story worth sharing, a gift greater than all his victories and defeats. But like all storytellers, he must decide which is more important: the gift, or his belief in heroes and villains. It is not such an easy choice, but one we are all given a lifetime to make.
"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com