Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Myth of "If I Had Only Known..."

It's a common desire for memoir writers to want to share their stories in hopes that "if a younger me had known what I know now, she would have made different choices..."

While I think there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this as a motivation, there are two pitfalls in it. For one, while it's great to be of help, and certainly plenty of memoirs help in many ways, it overlooks the fact that a lot of us DID have the wisdom we have now, but did the things we did anyway. In large part, that's because though we hear advice when we are young, and often have good intuitions, there are many social pressures and reasons to strike out on our own and do it our own way, despite good advice.

A few years ago, I invited Susan Piver to Madison to teach a writing retreat. One of the most powerful exercises we didn't wasn't about writing at all. We envisioned a future self who had some wisdom she wanted to impart to current self. After doing this exercise, she noted the future self lives inside the current self, already. We already know these things, inside us. We simply need to tap into that wisdom.

Memoir can be a mirror - a mirror of errors and a mirror of wisdom. But wisdom, to paraphrase a common phrase, is often wasted on the young. Simply knowing what the right answer is, or having gotten advice, cannot compete with the body knowledge and personal experience only time can deliver. Even if we read it in a particularly well-written and poignant or funny memoir.

Secondly, there's the fact that most people who read memoir are not kids/young folks. They are mostly adults who are our peers or similar ages - people in a reflective state who will learn more from similar stories to their own, rather than future versions they want to avoid or emulate. Peer audiences don't hear, "What I should know for the future," rather, "Seeing how they learned similar lessons I did or didn't learn." In this way, memoir serves more a purpose of interconnection and compassion, rather than education or instruction.

This is not meant to be a discouragement to try and help others through memoir. But it is important for us to have humility and recognize the human condition. If our desire is simply to model a good way of handling things, or to show someone else how to get through the tough stuff, we have to admit we made mistakes as well, and to acknowledge no one has a life exactly like ours. We also have to be patient, because even if we write a perfectly well crafted, metaphorically strong memoir in hopes the next generation of young women in our family, for instance, won't date the messed up folks we did, we have to realize we can't overcome years of socializing and epigenetic tendencies with 200 pages of words.

Most wisdom doesn't manifest through written instruction. For the most part, people hate advice. We can't simply read something and understand it, not if it is real wisdom. We need experience for integration. We can do our best to make suggestions for future generations, but be wary of the voice inside you that hopes you can prevent similar mistakes with your own memoir. Each young person finds their way, through reading, conversations, and, yes, making mistakes in their own way.

Memoir is best done and shared when the intention is connection, not instruction. Figure out what it is you want to share, not to pass down or push as your own agenda. There is nothing you could have known then that you didn't. Honestly. Writing memoir means resolving what we did or didn't know, and writing from where we are now, not from regret or judgment of ourselves or others.

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