What if you knew you had six months to live? It’s a question I pose to students in a course I teach, “Memoir, Your Life Story.” What might you write about your time in this world? Think about that.
My course is offered in a community college’s evening program. Students range in age from their 30s on into their early 70s. Quite often, many older students have spent a lifetime at some job they couldn’t stand. They’re hungry to learn something new. Restless to leave some mark on the world, they seek a creative outlet. The end of the road is coming and they are on fire to make sense of their life. Writing seems to be the path to take.
And then there’s the other end of the road. I teach students at the University of South Carolina’s School of Mass Communications and Information, (an unnecessary mouthful of words. “Journalism” works so much better.)
One semester, it so happened that I was teaching my memoirs class in the evening to adults and basic media writing to college kids in the afternoon. I told the college kids that teaching students older than me was an eye-opening experience. A young man raised his hand.
“Sir,” he said, “what’s the difference between teaching us and old people?”
“You really want to know,” I said, “I’ll tell you. Older folks would kill to be sitting where you are. Many never got to go to college. All their life they’ve had jobs they didn’t like and they are dying to learn. You kids, however, come to class late. You cut class and fidget when there’s about 10 minutes to go, sending me the signal that you are ready to go. You fall asleep in class. Your class is just one hour and 15 minutes but the evening classes I teach run three hours and the students don’t want to leave when class is over. Often the night watchman runs us out. That’s the difference.”
Not one kid said a word … the classroom was quiet.
Over the years, I’ve adopted an enlightened philosophy regarding college. No one should be able to attend college until they are at least 28 years old, maybe 30 even. Going straight to college from high school you know nothing, you’ve done nothing. You’ve yet to look down the rifle barrel known as life.
Work at a job you hate. That alone will motivate you to get a true education. Go to another country. Enlist in military service. Get some perspective on what the world is really like. Experience life. Discover your true calling. Earn a degree you’ll actually use. Live a full life and maybe you’ll write a wonderful memoir someday. Maybe.
A memoir, I should point out, is a slice of life. If you view a person’s life as a pie, the whole pie would be the biography. A memoir is one slice of the pie. A specific period revealed in all its intimacy. I enjoy a meaningful, well-written memoir as much as any book of fiction. For one thing, it’s real. I use James Salter’s Burning The Days as a model in my classes. Consider, for instance, this passage from Burning The Days on the death of his daughter.
“One night in May I had a dream of intense power—my daughter had become ill. In the dream she died. I was numb with sorrow. I went into the room where she lay, her beautiful face now closed, her long hair. Suddenly I was felled by it, brought to my knees. Tears poured down my cheeks. She was dead.
“The next morning there was a boil, like a stigma, in her left nostril. By nightfall she was desperately sick. The doctor pronounced it serious, an infection. There was a vein that ran here, by the nose, he said … I was sure she was going to die.
“At one time in my journals, beneath the date I had written, Every year seems the most terrible, but that was self-pity. The most terrible thing is the death of a child, for whom you would do so much, for whom you can do nothing. I had heard of the death of children and seen them lying helpless, but it was an arrow that would never be aimed your way.
“Nina, my daughter lived, but twelve years afterwards her older sister, Allan, died tragically. I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child. It was an electrical accident. It happened in the shower. I found her lying naked on the floor, the water running.”
Salter went on to say the truth, that in time the least painful thing was to forget this daughter who had died, not the kind of thing most people would confess to.
A memoir, you see, is unvarnished truth. It is real, revealing, and it may cause pain to some, though it can also cause joy after many years of anguish.
One day my phone rang. A man wanted to hire me to write an account of his life. He was ill. He was on oxygen. He had turned his back on his family many years earlier. Another woman entered the picture and he and his family parted ways. Estranged, they had not had any contact for many years. It’s a story more common than you may think.
This man, repentant, wanted to write a book, the story of his life. He had a sad story to tell. I met with him, recorded his thoughts, and began writing. We touched based daily. Several chapters took form, the work went well, and then he vanished. He wouldn’t return my calls. A month went by and then another month passed. I quit calling but one day for some reason unknown to me, I dialed his number knowing no one would answer. A woman picked up the phone. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“I was helping your dad write a book, his memoir,” I said. An awkward pause set in and then the woman began to cry. Her father had died and she had read the chapters we’d written. “Thank you so much,” she said. “We love what he wrote. It means so much to us.”
Though he never finished his book, he accomplished his goal. He didn’t live to hear the words he so badly wanted to hear but his words found their mark.
So, here we are, coming full circle. A friend of mine recently wrote, “If you knew you were about to die, would you feel you had given this life all you had to give? Would you feel you had completed your life’s great purpose? Will you go to the grave with the music still inside you? We’re all put in this life for a great purpose, and yet we come with no instruction manual. We have to find our great purpose on our own.”
What is your purpose? If you wrote your life story, what would your words be and would they find a mark?