And of course, it’s true. The primary reason to write a memoir – or to work with a memoir consultant like me – is to capture the details of your life: the homes in which you’ve lived, the earlier generations of your family, the trips you took, the jobs you held, the relationships you built, the challenges you faced.
It’s harder to tell them about the other benefits: the unexpected ways that preserving their story can change their life. But lately I’ve discovered that there are outcomes that I could not have anticipated myself until my clients started telling me about them.
I had one client, a 77-year-old widow, who invited me to her New England farm for our first meeting. She drove me around the isolated multi-acre property tucked deep in the mountains of New Hampshire in a Gator – a golf cart-like vehicle – explaining the significance that each garden and pond and rock outcropping held for her. Then she took me through the many rooms of her large house in even more detail, showing me her countless treasures, from collectibles to family photos to favorite furniture.
I knew I was supposed to be impressed, and I tried to respond appreciatively. But I was also a little bit dismayed. It just seemed like so much stuff to take care of, so many responsibilities for a woman in her late seventies, a two-time cancer survivor whose adult children both lived at least a hundred miles away. Even with part-time staff to help her with the buildings and grounds, I found the thought of her solitary life to be a little bit oppressive.
It took us about six months to finish her memoir: the details of her ancestry and childhood and young adult years, and then the story of her marriage and parenting years and how she came to acquire this magnificent property and all its accoutrements.
The day the book went into print, she wrote to me to share the surprising news that she had purchased a small seaside bungalow in the same Rhode Island town where her much-loved brother and sister both lived and was selling the farm.
She didn’t specifically connect her decision to the memoir, but I did. Having committed all her wonderful stories and memories to print, she no longer needed the material burden she had accumulated. With the story told, she was free to leave its props and accessories behind.
Another couple I worked with, like many of my clients, had always planned to write their memoirs themselves. For years, I’m told, they expressed the intent that they would do it – but they never quite got around to it. Then their daughter hired me to work with them, and in less than a year, their joint memoir was written. When I ran into their daughter a couple of months after I delivered the first draft, I hoped she would say they were busily reviewing it.
But what she told me instead surprised me. “My mother just finished writing and illustrating a children’s picture book about a dog,” she said. “And my father has compiled all their travel diaries into a bound collection, indexed by location, so that whenever any member of the family is traveling anywhere, they can read about my parents’ experiences there. I’m sorry we’re keeping you waiting, but I’m so pleased with everything they’re doing and I just know it’s because of the memoir. Having that finally off their plate freed them up mentally to follow all these other creative pursuits.”
While I was thinking about these unexpected ways that my clients were benefiting from their memoirs, a relative asked me if I might be able to help her write the stories behind each of the beloved works of art that she and her late husband had collected together – because once that was done, maybe she could start thinking about giving some of her art away.
I still think the primary reason to write a memoir should be, simply enough, to preserve your memories for yourself and for other people who may wish to read about your life. But the more clients I work with, the more I realize that unexpected things happen once you get your story down. With that big undertaking completed, you start to accomplish other goals. The past having been honored and documented, it seems that life opens up in new directions.