Exposing Ourselves: The Art of Memoir

Water Color by Ukranian Artist Anatoliy Khmara

First novels are not memoirs, though they are often semiautobiographical.  My first novel, entitled Gifts from the Dead, was a thinly disguised version of my experience of losing my husband just months after our son was born.  In retrospect, I am happy this book was not published and that it remains in a brown cardboard box on my closet floor.  I wrote Gifts from the Dead too soon after I was widowed, when I was still in denial about the disaster my life had become.  While the book was a form of therapy that kept me from falling off the edge, it was not a successful novel.  At the time I lacked the courage to write my story as non-fiction, as Susan Tiberghien and Lois Roelofs did in Looking for Gold and Caring Lessons, respectively.   It is an act of bravery to reveal one’s life story in detail.  Authors of memoir make public the intimate thoughts and details of their lives.  Done skillfully, as by these authors, memoirs tell the truth while transforming an ordinary life into art.

I learned of Susan Tiberghien’s insightful memoir of her year in Jungian analysis when I attended one of her workshops, “Writing our Way Home: Journaling to Memoir.”  In the workshop, Tiberghien taught that memoir need not be written chronologically, but as a mosaic, with nonlinear memories beautifully composed and carefully pieced together to create a story that explores and celebrates the nature of being.  (Another of Tiberghien’s books, One Year to the Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, is an invaluable addition to a writer’s library

In Looking for Gold, Tiberghien shares her struggles and fears as she undergoes a year of analysis with a Jungian trained analyst in Geneva, Switzerland.  She didn’t begin therapy because something was particularly wrong with her life.  She writes, “I wanted to deepen the way I was living, the way I was writing…I wanted to find a way to live in both worlds, the visible and the invisible.”  Each chapter, which begins with a brief description of a dream, is a fascinating journey into the realms of self-discovery, myth, faith, and the subconscious mind.  Written in poetic prose, the book offers the important message to look within rather than outside the self to find wholeness.

Tiberghien’s book reminds me that memoir can be more than a history of what happened during the course of one’s life.  A truthful rendering of an author’s emotions and reactions to the past enrich the story.  Lois Roelofs, Ph.D expresses her feelings about her career as an R.N. in various capacities, from staff nurse, to nurse researcher, to nursing professor in Caring Lessons.  The book chronicles the author’s life from nursing student days through her retirement.

As an RN myself, I could easily relate to Lois’s story, written with candor and humor, and her ongoing struggle to find the position which best suited her unique talents.   She writes with honesty about the episode of depression she suffered during her early years of marriage.  Feeling overwhelmed with caring for her two small children and having set aside her own ambitions in the 1970’s, she dared to examine her life, to look within.  Roelofs expresses what other married women might feel but are perhaps not willing to speak aloud.  It is risky for a woman who has a caring husband, beautiful children, and a nice house to admit she is not perfectly happy.  Some might say such a woman is ungrateful and has no right to complain.  But Roelofs’ story reminds us that it is all right to be discontent, to refuse to settle, to keep seeking fulfillment in our lives despite the inevitable obstacles we encounter.

After reading about her episode of depression, it was not surprising to me when Roelofs later described her decision to specialize in psychiatric nursing.  The best healers are often those who have journeyed through their own pain and developed hearts of compassion.  There are many who admire nurses and the work they do.  Caring Lessons is a wonderful reminder of why those who enter the profession are often earthly angels.

Susan Cheever says that “memoir is the novel of the 21st century.”  The stories we write about our own lives are, perhaps, a form of fiction.  Dreams, impressions, feelings, combine in this increasingly popular art form.  Consider reading Tiberghien’s or Roloefs’ book today.  Both Looking for Gold and Caring Lessons are available for purchase online.

About Mary A. Osborne

Mary A. Osborne is the author of Alchemy's Daughter and Nonna's Book of Mysteries.
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