Why Women Memoir Writers Need to Think Bigger

The ThinkerI’ve noticed a trend in the last year or so among my coaching clients. Many of the writers I’ve worked with have been women writing memoirs. Whether this trend is fueled by the inspiration and success of such bestsellers as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, women are turning out in droves these days to write about the bigness of their lives, or even just one little narrow slice of it. I think this is partly because women feel the freedom to express themselves as never before, unconstrained by expectations about gender, intellect, sexuality and social and political choices. But also because, for the first time in our modern culture, we get the feeling that someone beyond our tiny individual circle of friends might possibly be interested in reading about our lives and the way we chose to live them.

I had this topic on the brain when I started reading Civilization on Trial, a collection of essays by Arnold Toynbee, one of my favorite historians. I love Toynbee because he looks at history in terms of civilizations. He takes the long loooong view of the human race, and when he talks about movements and waves and changes, he’s thinking back as far as the dinosaurs and looking forward as far as centuries and centuries into the future. In that kind of context, one’s perspective about all the crazy stuff going on in current events today shifts drastically. Suddenly, the presidential race that everyone is so worked up about seems like hardly a blip on the historical radar.

One of the most interesting things that Toynbee points out though, is that the period of Ancient Greek history that we know the most about is the period of which there is the most surviving literature. It’s not that the other periods were any more or less valuable in the grand scheme of human progress; it’s just that we don’t have much in the way of a written record about those times. In the long run, he says, it’s the poets and artists who win out and define their age for future generations, much more so than politicians or generals.

Because the poets and artists make it their mission to record what it means and what it feels like for a soul to exist in whatever time they happen to live.

This brings me back to all the women writing memoirs these days. Almost invariably, when talking to this type of client, they always ask me, “But who will want to read this? Who will want to read about my  life?” From what I’ve learned from Toynbee, this question arises simply because we are thinking too small. The woman who is writing her memoir pictures her friends reading it, her colleagues, maybe even her children or grandchildren if she’s thinking farther ahead. But rarely is she thinking about the people in the year 3016. Or 4016.

In our current climate of fear and worry over the state of the world and where we’re headed as a species, there’s a great temptation to dismiss questions like these by crudely concluding that humans will blow everything up by then, ruin the planet, and snuff ourselves out. In my opinion, this is a pessimistic viewpoint that serves as a substitute for doing the hard work of thinking, imagining, and dreaming a much more positive—and complex—alternative for our future into life.

I don’t think we’re going to ruin everything beyond repair. We might make a pretty big mess, but as a parent of a one-year-old, I can tell you that growth and evolution are naturally messy. The Cheerios don’t always make it into the mouth. The first steps almost always result in a hard fall. This is the natural course of life. It’s just very tempting to forget that we ever went through such a process ourselves, or to deny that we might still be going through it as a people.

I do think we’ll still be around in the year 3016, and  in the year 4016, and I have no way to predict what, if anything, of our current culture will have survived for the people living in that future time to peruse in order to learn about us. But I do know that the odds will be greatly in favor of anything that was produced in great quantities and that include examples all across the range of experience. So the more women who pick up the pen and perform that brave act of setting their life down on paper the more chance there is that our human comrades 2,000 years from now might get a glimpse of our current life and culture, and be able to take some valuable insight away that will help them to go forward the more bravely into their own future.

One of my current clients is a woman writing her memoir about the years she spent in a fabulous, glamorous cosmopolitan city at the height of its decadence, and another one of my clients wrote her memoir about what it was like to enter the field of computers and technology in the 1970s as a female programmer. These are just two examples of the fascinating stories an archaeologist or scholar of the future might stumble upon when digging into the long-ago past of 2016.

What’s your story? And if you were writing it for the people of 4016, what would you tell them?

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