Learning from Pulitzer-Prize Winning journalist, Rick Bragg
Why Write a Memoir?
After “Daddy” died at the advanced age of 87, I started jotting down thoughts in my writing notebooks that went something like this: “Maybe I should write down a story or two about Daddy?” “Maybe I should do a series of stories about Daddy.” “I think I should just start writing and see what happens…” Pretty soon, lists of funny episodes of life with “Daddy” erupted on the pages. In scratches and scribbles, I jotted a sketch of my childhood home, a catalog of our family’s favorite meals, and rough genealogy charts.
My friend, a successful novelist, steered me in the right direction:
“Don’t write one word until you read Rick Bragg.”
She promptly gifted me with a copy of Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg’s family history of Charlie Bundrum, the grandfather he never knew. After I gobbled up that fabulous read, I quickly devoured All Over But the Shoutin’, Bragg’s memoir about how his life was influenced by his mother.
The plot began to thicken, so they say, and I wrote one story about Daddy. Then another. And another. Every day I was compelled to write about my childhood and how Daddy had influenced our family. Individual vignettes grew into chapters. They shuffled themselves around finding places in the pecking order. Those written pieces of my life started living on their own. Nine months later, I had a birthed a manuscript, a memoir born of love and memory.
Rick Bragg Gave Me the Reasons
I am forever awed and humbled by the power of Rick Bragg’s prose and knowingly bow to the master. Few writers can match his emotional intensity, his descriptive powers, or his ability to portray the essence of a person on the page. I want to try. Bragg knew why he was writing his story, and in lyrical, forceful language, he shares his reasons. It turns out that his reasons are my reasons and are probably the same as any other writer who contemplates writing a memoir.
1. To pay tribute
Bragg wants to make a permanent record of the things his mother did for him before it is too late.
“I tell it because there should be a record of my momma’s sacrifice even if it means unlesahing ghosts, because it is one of the few ways I can think of — beyond financing her new false teeth and making sure the rest of her life is without the deprivations of her past — to repay her for all the suffering and indignity she absorbed for us, for me.”
“I have been putting this off for ten years, because it was personal, because dreaming backwards can carry a man through some dark rooms where the walls seem lined with razor blades. I put it off and put it off until finally something happened to scare me, to hurry me, to make me grit my teeth and remember.
It was death that made me hurry….”
Bragg writes that he wants to honor his mother and show how good and noble she is NOW while she’s alive. (Sorry I waited so long, Daddy!) He warns us that writing a memoir can be excruciating. Most memories aren’t all that happy, but they are time-sensitive.
2. To preserve memory
All Over But the Shoutin’ shows how Bragg’s mother affected his life choices. The book interweaves his journalistic career with his reasons for writing this memoir. In one vivid memory, Bragg recalls a story he reported on the tragic death of a young child in a dilapidated housing project. The kid had been hit by a stray bullet as he played on the front step. The child’s grieving mother thanked Bragg for writing the story because
“People remembers it. People forgets if it ain’t wrote down.”
The stories of our lives may not be as tragic as this one, but they are just as worthy of remembering. Writing them down is a way to keep us from forgetting. Memoirs are permanent monuments to memory.
3. To record our histories
Bragg’s mother and her people know stories that will be lost forever if they aren’t preserved. When people die, their knowledge goes with them. Bragg believes those stories can’t be squandered. Even sad stories are better told than lost. By writing his memoir, his mother and her stories can live in his mind and the mind of others. If she’s there, captured on the page, he won’t feel the absence of her knowledge so acutely.
“Maybe, if I tell it right, she will live again in these pages, that all the things she could have shared about who we are, who I am, will not be so badly missed.
4. To set the story straight
“The biggest reason for writing this story is to set one thing straight from now on. My momma believes that she failed, that her three sons being all she has ever had, did not get enough of the fine things in life because she was our mother. ..
In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get any great truth, just a few little ones. It is still a damn hard thing to do, when you think about it. .. God help me, Momma, if I am clumsy.”
5. To use talent to the best of our ability
If you’re a writer, the way you see the world is with words. The way you pay tribute, give criticism, work through problems, ease guilt, soothe pain, and deliver praise is in language. Writing a memoir is the best gift we can give. Bragg says it best:
“I tell it because I can, because it is how I earn my paycheck, now at the New York Times, before at so many other places, telling stories.”
I’m no New York Times journalist, but I’m a writer who makes my living with words. My manuscript about “Daddy” is searching for an agent, but like Bragg, I HAD to write it.
“… I knew I should not wait any longer to write some of this down, whether anyone ever read it or not.”
Because remembering is important.
Write your story now. Get Rick Bragg's Ava's Man and All Over But the Shoutin' from Amazon.com - (it's quicker), or from Bookshop.org. (Slower shipping times, but you're supporting independent bookstores.) Ava's Man and All Over But the Shoutin'.