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Why It’s Important We Bear Witness in Memoir

Memoir is a valuable way to bear witness, both to ourselves and to others. The memoir writer gives voice, shape, and meaning to their life and those in it, and the reader, as a result of connecting with the memoirist at such a deep level, forges a stronger relationship with their own humanity. Why is bearing witness important? The more we do it, the more we truly see one another and grow. In this way, memoir becomes the connective tissue between people and forges important bonds.

Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of writing your true story by thinking,  “Why would anyone want to read about me?” This procrastination measure is normal, but you needn’t worry.

When you write your story with honesty and heart, it will always find — and move —its readers because memoir has the ability to go beyond all artifice and right to the heart of the human.

This is why memoir is consistently the highest selling literary genre on the market. Modern readers gravitate to memoir more than any other kind of book because it gives us the chance to bear witness.

We get to have an intimate connection with another person, explore their life up close, and go on a journey with them that typically ends in catharsis and healing, for them and for us- from the comfort of our sofa.

In our virtual-based world with less and less physical interaction, the intimate experience of a memoir heals the soul both of the writer and of the reader.

When You Write Memoir, You Bear Witness to Your Own Story

When a writer takes on the beautiful and rewarding task of plumbing their life and sharing their story, it’s in large part due to our human response to bear witness.

One of the most important ways a person can honor themselves is by recognizing the importance of their own story and acknowledging that importance on a micro and a macro scale. A life lived is one thing, but as Socrates noted, a life examined and made real through inquiry, examination, and narrative development is one that can become meaningful and resonant for many others, informing their lives in turn.

As memoirists, we owe it to ourselves to take a close look at our lived experiences and the relationships that have informed them, in effect to ensure we and our stories matter.


The Reader Bears Witness to A Fellow Human Being

Our need to share our stories is biological, rooted in our imperative to survive. We live in amongst family and peers; we stand before them for acknowledgement, and we rely on them for help. We as writers tell our stories because we know that while it’s good and important to get our stories onto the page, it’s as important for those stories to be witnessed and received by others.

Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi furthered this idea by positing that art only becomes art once it is accepted and acknowledged by a community. It is that reciprocity that makes a memoir so valuable.

Memoir Brings the World Closer Together

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As readers of memoir, we bear witness by taking in others stories and holding them so they become part of our own. Books have no boundaries or cultural lines and offer an intimate view of other worlds, which helps foster understanding and serves to knit the world more closely together.

This is how a university student in Iowa can weep over the struggles of Elizabeth Nayamayaro in I Am a Girl From Africa, and a commuter in Hong Kong can laugh out loud at Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

We read of the atrocities of World War II, refugee camps, and genocides not because we’re ambulance chasers but because we want to hold space with people who have endured and triumphed, and so we may sit side-by-side with these people and share in their truths. We take in stories of love and loss, pain and joy, tragedy and triumph. All so we may be reminded of what connects and binds us together.

Memoir Makes Others’ Stories Familiar

Stories reach across every arbitrary line in order to teach, invite intimacy, and bring about growth. Through memoir, a person who could remain faceless and theoretical becomes a living breathing person in exacting relief.

When complex cultural issues become one person’s intimate experience, we align with the memoirist as well as gain an understanding of the broader situation.

The concept of race relations in Ravi Shankar’s recently published, Correctional, about his experience of “driving while brown” leading to incarceration and his thorough exploration of racial discriminatory practices in the U.S. justice system, opens up the complexity of and one’s own complicity in a broken system (read an excerpt HERE).

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Canadian residential schools and their gross neglect and murder of the Indigenous children in their care become painful and personal to everyone when explored by survivor Michelle Good’s recent memoir, Five Little Indians, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

These are but two examples out of thousands of important memoirs whose memoirists hazard the personal and political. The perils of the world are many, but through bearing witness in this intensely personal way do people comprehend the impacts others have on each and every human being.

In this way, memoir is a protest, a cry for change, and a step toward calling out for people to take a stand and step up.

Memoir Helps Us Heal

The practice of sitting with another in their pain or their joy and offering support has become key in healing practices such as in therapy, in mirroring exercises, and in meetings of 12-Step groups. Bearing witness helps lighten the individual’s emotional load and promotes catharsis for both parties given the intimacy and shared humanity.

When we write memoir, our hazarding our own stories and emotional interiors invites the reader into our experiences, so they feel as seen and heard by our speaking to our truth.

As a reader, whether you have lost a spouse or loved one, had a difficult childhood, or went through an arduous period of time or you have not, when you read another’s story, you are right there with the author, making that important human connection, and in your own way, making connections in your own emotional life to heal.

Empathy Helps Us See

It is a known effect of reading any story, whether fiction or nonfiction, that we build empathy (children especially develop the “muscle” of empathy from engaging with stories). The more we read, the better human citizens we become.

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Bearing witness means to be receptive to another’s tale and to allow it to leave its mark. It asks that you take in all the details. That you let yourself sit with the feelings – no matter how uncomfortable. It asks you to offer a small piece of your heart as a place to hold the stories of others, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done.

The next time you’re tempted to ask yourself, “Who would want to read my story?” consider how meaningful it will be — to you and to your reader— to tell yours, and to let someone enter it and be a part.

Then begin to write.

Write Your Memoir with Us

When you are ready to write your memoir, or if you’ve begun and would enjoy having the literary partnership, collaboration, and insights of one of our coaches by your side to make the work much more productive and fluid, please reach out. We are always here to help you write your stories.

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