Memoirs: More Than Just What Happened

Memoirs require depth and not merely what transpired during the slice of life being recounted through story.  The writer needs to look up from her reminiscing, and explain the wider experience and the meaning of it to the reader.
College wasn’t for me or my siblings.  We were not encouraged to attend college right out of high school.  There was no money for higher education in my house growing up.  We four children were told we had our education, and it was time to enter the workforce.  My siblings and I accepted it; we had no other choice.  Most of the children in my neighborhood did the same thing in the late 1970’s, especially the females.  My family didn’t know about community college, never went looking for it.  
Through light backstory, intermixed with feelings on this, I could expound upon what it felt like to be left by the roadside on the journey to a formal degree.  I always wondered what it would have been like to live on campus and study.  Of course at that time, I had no idea how extensive a college education was, how expensive.  It looked exciting to me because it was just outside my grasp.  College was for the wealthy, my family had always said. 
On a personal level, I looked for education wherever I could find it, wherever I could afford it.  The law office where I worked talked about sending one of the secretaries to paralegal training offered locally.  I jumped at the chance and told the office manager I would do it.  But then the lawyers decided against it.

To add depth to my memoir about going to college with five children in tow, I could research the history of my local community college or perhaps the birthing of community colleges in general; the two year colleges that possibly helped make higher education more affordable for the masses, and then add snippets of information–not in a solid block, but rather throughout my experiences.  In a later section of the book, I could compare the idea of local community colleges to the 300 plus year history of the University of Pennsylvania, an international university, an Ivy League, part of the ivory tower in education that I thought I could never reach.      

Let’s take a look at a few of the memoirs I’ve been reading and see how well-known writers interpret their stories.  I find the writers connecting beyond their own experiences in order to make sense of the larger themes of belonging, of learning from those who struggled before them.

In Beth Kephart’s Still Love in Strange Places, Kephart describes the very land where her husband grew up and connects the volatility of the land to the political tensions of El Salvador.  The turmoil of the country mirrors Kephart’s trial to understand her husband’s culture, to feel a part of her husband’s culture.
In Colleen Carroll Campbell’s memoir My Sisters the Saints, Carroll Campbell connects her experiences grappling with her Catholic faith in the context of personal difficulty and tragedy with various saints down through the centuries, demonstrating that Carroll Campbell is not alone in her struggles.   

These thoughts dance across my dreams as I continue to read memoir and hammer away at my revisions.  Your thoughts are always welcome and greatly appreciated.    

14 thoughts on “Memoirs: More Than Just What Happened”

  1. I agree, memoirs are interesting but should be about more than just "what happened". What can we learn about these events, how does it impact us and those around us, etc. – these are the things I think readers can carry away with them. Best wishes with your work in progress!

  2. Yes definitely, Karen. Thank you so much for this support. Now…what exactly to say to engage the reader? Of course, this is the difficulty with memoir for the writer. Thank you so much for visiting Adventures in Writing and leaving your insight. It is greatly appreciated.

  3. Thank you, Nas. Life seems to be getting in the way of my writing right now, but I'm crawling forward in adding these themes to the manuscript. I can't thank you enough for your offer to read it. It means the world to me. Thanks so much for visiting Adventures in Writing and leaving a note.

  4. College was fairly inexpensive when I attended from 1969 to 1974. I paid my own way and lived at home with my parents to cut costs. I meandered my way through without any clear goal and then dropped out right before I could have graduated. It took me 40 years to go back and finish up with a degree in business management and by that time it was a lot more expensive and I had to take extra classes in order to obtain the BS degree. It was kind of fun, but in the end it was mostly a waste of time and money and just a matter of the prestige of saying I had a degree.

    Like you, over the years I've taken advantage of any opportunities to take classes or whatever to expand my educational horizons.

    With the current societal thoughts about college educations, your memoir might put things into perspective and shed a different light to today's readers.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  5. Bravo to you, Lee, for finally obtaining your degree. The present day price of higher education is ridiculous. This makes a college education almost impossible for anyone who cannot win a scholarship or qualify for financial aid. Make no mistake, Lee. I'm still taking advantage of educational opportunities wherever I find them. Thanks so much for visiting my Adventures in Writing blog and leaving a note. It is greatly appreciated.


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