May 30, 2018

Is the Memoir the New Self-help?

“The memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life…” ~ William Zinsser


It’s May of 2018, and I’m about to give a commencement speech to graduating college students in Ghana. As I’m walking up to the stage, I hear my name. Right after that, the words, “motivational speaker” ring in my ears.

I cringe and quickly announce to the students that I sometimes find it hard to motivate myself, let alone motivate others. I merely speak about my life, experiences, and stories.

It’s the same with my writing. I’m a memoirist and an essayist—not a self-help guru.

These days, we are inundated with self-help material in the form of seminars, viral blog posts, New York Times bestsellers, and YouTube shorts—all of it telling us what to do and how to do it.

However, all that “how-to” content doesn’t compel us (the readers) to make significant change. Maybe we get inspired for a few hours or days—but then that video or lecture or book fades away to make space for newer and more interesting information.

Don’t get me wrong, self-help books, podcasts, and seminars are an excellent place to start, but after a while they lose their effect and diminish in value.

Inspiration without action becomes a frustrating exercise in futility.

For example, losing weight is not rocket science, yet there must be millions of books (many on the New York Times bestseller list) on how to do it. Despite all this content, many people remain uninspired and fail to lose weight. Simply reading about the steps to success (in anything) doesn’t mean we will take them.

In today’s personal development world, information flows incessantly. This week it is affirmations. Next week it’s how to “let go.” And then there’s the infamous “Law of attraction,” always the centre of some seminar, book, or show.

It’s hard to know where to look and who to trust.

However, this all changes when the information we take in becomes charged with emotions; our odds of getting into action rise dramatically. When we—as bloggers, writers, or even motivational speakers—share our personal experiences, we help others to viscerally relate to our material. In effect, we become memoirists: “I’m telling you what I did. See if it helps or works for you.”

In sharing ourselves and our experiences through the craft of memoir, we replicate the age-old tradition of storytelling. Here, emotionally compelling tales are handed down from generation to generation. These stories allow us to connect dots and grasp the lessons that relate to us.

Scientific research confirms that reading others’ stories and empathizing with them raises our levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin.

In writing terminology, “other people’s stories” means memoir.

A memoir, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a narrative composed from personal experience.” It is also “an account of something noteworthy.” A memoir differs from autobiography in that it usually covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life, while an autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life.

We can trace the origins of the memoir back to 371 A.D., when St. Augustine wrote his “Confessions.” In trying to understand the misdemeanours of his youth, he wrote honestly and explicitly. His vulnerability had an enormous impact on the history of Christianity. Through his words, multitudes of people realised that we humans can be fallible, but that we can always change our ways and seek redemption.

Only in the last 50 years, however, has the memoir genre exploded into our literary world. It’s not so far-fetched to foresee it soon overtaking the self-help franchise in popularity.

The process of a memoir is itself significant; by unravelling their stories, memoirists give the reader the power to unravel his or her own. The reader may not have lived the same precise details as the memoirist, but we all share common threads and themes.

For instance, in sharing how he or she became aware of past traumas and dealt with them, the memoirist gives hope to the reader. The memoirist tells the reader, “I’ve been through pain, but I’ve survived. There’s hope for you too.”

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr further explains this function of generating hope. She writes:

“When I asked a class of undergrads what they liked about memoir, I heard them echo the no-doubt-naive sentiment that they drew hope from the mere fact of a writer living past a bad juncture to report on it. “It’s a miracle he even survived!” was written on many papers. The telling has some magic power for them, as it does for me. “Tell it,” the soldiers in Vietnam begged Michael Herr, and in Dispatches, he told it.”

In reading the stories of our fellow human beings, we discover empathy for their lives. We see how they lived and understand why they reacted to specific circumstances in certain ways. The sharing of pain and the communal, “tribal” healing that follows binds us human beings to one another in a distinctly positive way.

The famous memoirist Tobias Wolff had a particularly difficult childhood. A lack of real parenting and support left a lasting imprint on his future self. However, in writing his memoir, This Boy’s Life, Wolff not only recalled the memories that defined who and what he had become, but also extinguished their paralysing effect on him by translating memory into words.

After reading his memoir, I understood why he decided to join the army (and many other things). It gave him the authority and self-possession he lacked. This decision ultimately led to his success as one of the best American writers.

In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen uses her pen name, Isak Dinesen, to write a memoir about her years as a farm owner in the Ngong foothills outside Nairobi, in what is now Kenya, East Africa. What I find most interesting about her story is that she seems less interested in facts, figures, dates, history, or politics, and instead focuses on her relationship with a male-dominated colonial settlement in East Africa.

I saw a different Africa, probably a more authentic one, than the Africa I live in today. Her viewpoint expanded my perspective, even though it was written almost 100 years ago.

In When Breath Becomes Air, brilliant neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at the age of 36. However, this book doesn’t just detail the facts of his cancer, but rather proffers a more profound look at life and death.

The way Kalanithi approaches death with courage, dignity, and grace—and the skill with which his experience is translated to the page—left me questioning my own sense of mortality.

There is nothing more inspiring than finding out how our heroes became so. In Born Standing up: A Comic’s Life, Steve Martin chronicles the evolution of his career from stand-up comedian to actor and author of acclaimed best sellers.

Though Martin is undeniably talented, he focuses on the sacrifice and discipline needed to become a comic icon in the mid-70s. Furthermore, he describes how working so hard distanced him from his family; it took him decades to reconnect with them.

We can only share information that we’ve owned—knowledge that has arisen from or worked in our lives. We can only preach the lessons that we’ve learned and the changes that we’ve made.

We are all interconnected. Writers and readers. We need to dig into our own experience—and one another’s—to reconnect, over and over again.

When we do (through the reading and writing of memoir, for instance), we acknowledge our shared humanity. We give away parts of ourselves. We say, “I get you,” “I can see where you’re coming from” or, “I feel you.”

When we charge information with emotions, we become ready to change—in a way that is uniquely us.


Author: Mo Issa
Image: Eat Pray Love/YouTube
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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