Memoir as Potential Social Movement

Last Friday, The Kalamazoo Gazette published an op-ed I wrote. Its conclusion contains the revolutionary idea that if all of us finished the tasks (see below or click link above) we need to accomplish before a “good” death is possible, we would have years to live free of the fear of death and thus could focus on how to fan the fires of love.

What do you think of this idea? How would we begin the movement?  Has it already begun?

Writing our own memoirs is a way to reflect and answer the big questions

by Shirley H. Showalter

Friday May 22, 2009, 9:07 AM

“This is the age of memoir,” declared writing expert William Zinsser in 1989.

Evidence all around us suggests Zinsser is right. Recently Rick Bragg held a full house at Kalamazoo Central High School enrapt as he told stories from the three memoirs selected by the Kalamazoo Public Library (“All Over but the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man,” and “The Prince of Frogtown”) in the excellent Reading Together series. A few days later, Susan Boyle’s appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” was the talk of America, and more than 33 million people have viewed the YouTube video of her instantly transformed life.

Personal stories completely infiltrate our lives. Technology and entertainment outlets sizzle with them: reality TV shows, blogs, vlogs, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, self-published books, podcasts, six-word memoirs, “This I Believe,” Story Corps, “This American Life,” the scrapbooking craze, birthing, christening, graduation, wedding videos on the Internet and “Life Story” funeral homes.

A new journal called Memoir (and) includes poetry, photography, graphic essays and short stories. Samsung just brought out a new camera/phone combo called the Memoir! Businesses have sprung up to help elderly people digitize photos, video, journals and memorabilia from their lives. A “viral” feature on Facebook, “25 Things About Me,” involved more than 5 million people within a four-week span.

The field of philanthropy is being transformed by social entrepreneurs who have discovered the power of personal stories. Kiva.org raised more than $36 million online last year by helping more than 93,000 people, who needed small amounts of capital, tell their stories.

President Barack Obama penned his first memoir at the age of 34. We have yet to comprehend how much “Dreams from My Father” (and, to a lesser extent, “The Audacity of Hope”) contributed to the making of our first African-American president. Had he not taken more than a year of his young life to wrestle meaning from the givens (his “Kenyan father” and “Kansan mother”) and the choices (community organizer rather than Wall Street lawyer, Christian rather than humanist or Muslim), he would not have become the leader he is today.

Some people decry and deride all this self-revelation. Too much information, they may say. Narcissism! The preening of celebrities and the role of media in making and breaking shallow identities make easy targets for critics, and rightly so.

But there is another side to the popularity of memoir, a side Rick Bragg showed us during his Kalamazoo visit. Good memoir teaches both the reader and the writer humility. St. Augustine, after all, is credited with the first autobiography that he titled, appropriately, “Confessions.”

We might all consider memoir writing, not necessarily for publication, but for the same reason the best spiritual memoirists examine their lives: to see the shape of our souls, locate our central tensions and conflicts, ask for God’s grace, forgive our debtors, discover our voices, and find the courage to continue the journey home.

In the decades ahead, 78 million baby boomers will reach the ends of their lives. We know from hospice workers that those who are dying face four main tasks, encapsulated in these words:

• “I love you.”

• “Thank you.”

• “I forgive you.”

• “Please forgive me.”

If a whole generation could find the courage to go through this process before they lay dying, we just might unleash the love energy this poor planet needs right now. That would be a new vision worth working for — a more humble, spiritual age brought to birth, and commemorated, in memoir.

Shirley H. Showalter is vice president for programs at the Fetzer Institute, www.fetzer.org and maintains a blog at www.100memoirs.com.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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