Why Write A Memoir ?- Nancy Slonim Aronie
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means-what I want and what I fear.
– NANCY ARONIE
Why in the world do you write? And why are you writing a memoir in particular? I’ll tell you why I wrote mine (which, incidentally, still hasn’t gotten published). My son Dan was diagnosed with diabetes at nine months old. Doctors had never dealt with such a young diabetic baby, and they were clueless. Then at twenty two, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He died at age thirty-eight. During the sixteen years we took care of him, the book I wanted and needed had not yet been written.
I also wrote my memoir to get a hold of how, by indulging my son, by changing the rules to make life “easier” for him, by reinforcing the message that he was handicapped in every way, I was actually crippling him more than the disease was. Writing about my experiences with this sick kid gave me exactly what I needed to see what I was doing. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a long trip from brutal awareness to actual change.
In 1977, when Dan was six, I read Be Here Now, Ram Dass’ landmark hippie book, and my life jumped the traditional tracks. I started driving around listening to his tapes, buying all his books, reading and underlining like a person possessed. I was a person possessed. I started going to silent retreats and meditating. I felt my heart opening and my mind wrestling with old paradigms, questioning everything and rejecting nothing.
In retrospect, it was almost as if I had been in training for the tsunami that was coming. Just in time, I had found my teacher.
Ram said things like, “It’s all just phenomena happening and it’s all unfolding perfectly,” and, “There is no good. There is no bad. There just is. It’s the judging and the labeling that creates the suffering.”
As difficult as my boy’s journey was for all of us, for the first time I had a spiritual understanding. This is not to say that the situation wasn’t incredibly painful. But the pain at least had meaning. I realized that nothing about my life was random. It was about growing my soul. Who knew there was such a thing as growing your soul? Life had nothing to do with destiny. It had everything to do with how I chose to react to the constantly changing circumstances. It had everything to do with learning to let go of my need to control and learning how to be with what is. And that practice, being with what is, made all the difference in the world.
I knew my husband and I had done this thing differently from many people, and I wanted to write it, at first just to get it on the page. And then to try to understand, with a little distance, what it was we had actually done.
People kept telling us we were courageous and that we were heroes. That sounded nice, but it had nothing to do with what we were doing. The fact is, we weren’t doing anything. We were being. We were just putting one foot in front of the other.
Later, once I saw what I had written, I realized that here was the book I had wanted. I had wanted to know that suffering doesn’t kill you. I had wanted to know that there would be moments of such profound beauty I almost wouldn’t have traded them for ease. I had wanted to know that this was bigger than mother and son and sickness, and I had wanted to know that I had every right to have a broken heart- and that you don’t die of a broken heart. I had wanted to know that when I was stuck in the role of mother of a sick child, it gave Dan no other option than to be in his role of the sick child. But mostly I had wanted to know that this was my soul’s graduate degree, and I was going to get straight A’s.
Writing it down was cathartic. Writing it down invited me to stand in a different place, and writing it down helped me begin to heal.
Writing it down showed me that fighting any of it, pushing any of it away, would have taken all the energy I needed to stay fully present. Writing it down made me realize that I could take what happens to me and turn it into something else, something beautiful, something full of grace. But in writing it, I knew that before it turned into grace I had to feel the grief. I couldn’t skip the pain part.
Here are a few questions for you: Why are you writing your memoir?
Are you writing it to get it out of your body and onto the page? If no one ever sees it, will you still be fine? Are you writing to heal?
Are you writing to help others- and because it will be so much fun to pick out your outfit for your book signing? Because your father will finally realize how great you are, and David Weinstein will finally realize what a mistake he made by dumping you? Because now you are a bestselling author and your interview with Terry Gross has been aired three times already?
Is it a way to tell your kids and your grandkids who you were? And because it’s just powerful to write?
The question I asked myself was, How was it possible that we were able to laugh and cry within seconds of each other? Writing my memoir answered all my questions, including this one.
Excerpted from Nancy’s new book, The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story (New World Library 2022)
Memoir as Medicine: Write it From the Heart
Memoir as medicine is a workshop about the healing power of getting your story out of your body, out of your liver, out of your pancreas, out of your heart!
NANCY SLONIM ARONIE
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the founder of The Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard and the author of Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but gorgeously yours) Life Story and Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. She has been a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and she was a visiting writer at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Nancy wrote a monthly column in McCall’s magazine; she was the recipient of the Eye of The Beholder Artist in Residence Award at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; and she was recognized for excellence in teaching for all three years she taught with Robert Coles at Harvard University.