“I was terrified,” says Walls. “I had this great life, a husband who loved me, a great job, a house with flush toilets, yet I felt like a fraud. I had a compulsion to write about this embarrassing stuff even though I knew I was risking everything.”
Walls made false starts on her memoir four times over 20 years, on each occasion growing so frustrated and fearful that she threw out the entire manuscript. Finally, when she was 44, The Glass Castle was published. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost three years, has sold more than two million copies, has been translated into 23 languages, and will soon be a movie.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common,” says Walls. “So many of us think that certain things only happened to us and somehow they make us less of a person. I’m constantly urging people, especially older folks, to write about their lives. It gives you new perspective. It was hugely eye-opening for me and very cathartic. Even if the book hadn’t sold a single copy, it would still have been worth it.”
You don’t need to have had a hardscrabble youth in order to write a memoir. You don’t need eccentric parents. Believe it or not, you don’t need anything dramatic. And you certainly don’t have to publish it. Consider this exchange that Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes and other memoirs, had with a skeptical student: ” ‘Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky,’ ” the author recounts in Teacher Man.
” ‘You had that miserable childhood, so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to school, go on vacation, go to college, fall in love or something, graduate and go into some kind of profession, get married, have the 2.3 kids you’re always talking about, send the kids to school, get divorced like 50 percent of the population, get fat, get the first heart attack, retire, die.’ “
” ‘Jonathan,’ ” McCourt replied, ” ‘that is the most miserable scenario of American life I’ve heard in a high school classroom. But you’ve supplied the ingredients for the great American novel. You’ve encapsulated the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald.’ “
In other words, 99.9 percent of people lead boring lives. But every single one of them is trying to make some sense out of his or her existence, to find some meaning in the world, and therein lies the value and opportunity of memoir. It’s therapeutic for the writer, and it eventually even helps his or her descendants understand themselves better.
“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it,” says Walls. “It’s honestly sharing what you think, feel, and have gone through. If you can do that effectively, then somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.”
Writing about your life is also about coming to a fresh understanding of it at an age when you probably think you know yourself pretty well. Novelist Stephen King has said, “I write to find out what I think.” He means that until you set an experience down on paper, until you ponder the perfect words to describe it, you can’t fully appreciate or understand it. Threading related experiences together, you see a pattern in the quilt of your existence. It’s about creating a legacy that doesn’t have dollar signs in front of it but has far greater residual value for family and friends.
There are as many different types of memoir as there are people. Like Walls and McCourt, you can write about your childhood. You can write about places you’ve visited, as Elizabeth Gilbert did in the blockbuster memoir Eat, Pray, Love. You can write about a particular person who influenced you, as Lorna Kelly did in The Camel Knows the Way, which chronicles her time with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. You can write about a crime or injustice you encountered, as Mary-Ann Tirone Smith did in Girls of Tender Age, which traces the murder of a classmate. You can write a memoir about anything, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Everybody has stories shelved in his or her subconscious, awaiting translation.