Why we should read other people's stories
Straight from their heart to our heart
August 31st of every year is National “We Love Memoirs” Day!
If you’ve ever written a memoir — or thought about writing one — you know that it’s like laying your heart out on a silver platter and presenting it for people to carve. Telling your personal story takes bravery. While it may seem like writing a memoir is an exercise of self-centeredness, it is, in fact, the opposite.
“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.”
The status of memoir
Celebrities, athletes, entrepreneurs, and politicians — people with already-high public profiles — often release memoirs. Because of their lives in the public eye, those memoirs are often best-sellers.
For years, people who weren’t famous had a slim-to-none chance of getting a book deal with a major publisher. Somehow, memoirs had the taint of being a genre for amateur authors who didn’t understand the art form.
But there is a new trend in memoir-writing.
Because of the rise of self-publishing, average, ordinary people who can’t get into the big house, traditional publishing houses are now able to tell their stories. Memoirs are booming. As Senjuti Patra in Book Riot suggests,
“The memoir has been increasing in popularity as a genre over the past decade. As social media bombards us with heavily beautified snippets from other peoples’ lives, when everyone else seems perfect, we hunger for the affirmation that we are not the only ones with the mess and the ugliness that sometimes overwhelm our lives. We need need to know that despite that, we will be okay.”
The Guardian reported that memoirs increased in popularity 42% between 2018 and 2019, primarily because many of the new memoirs are by average, real-life people. Christie Watson was a nurse who had kept diaries throughout her career. When she began to write the story of her interaction with people, The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story, resulted and shot to the top of the list of bestselling memoirs for that year, behind Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
“She [Watson] is one of a rapidly growing genre of new authors — everyday folk in everyday jobs — that have helped catapult memoirs into one of the fastest-growing areas in publishing.”
Why we should read other people’s stories
Reading other people’s stories is therapeutic in so many ways.
While the story told in a memoir is a personal one, it is also universal. None of us is unique enough in the entirety of human existence that our experience is singular. If it happened to one person, it happened to another person. Hence, the personal is always universal.
Reading the stories of others gives us hope. By seeing other people’s resolutions to problems, we get ideas of how we, too, might handle a tricky situation. We see that other people have survived tragedy, disease, bankruptcy, addiction, and abuse. On a simpler level, we see that everyday matters — like feelings of guilt, worries about disciplining your children, and how to pay the bills — matter.
Reading other peoples’ stories teaches us compassion. It’s difficult not to have a new appreciation for a person once you see what that person has lived through.
Memoirs are written and read because people see something of their own feelings or experiences in someone else’s life. That knowledge that other people have experienced what we have makes us feel less alone.
Memoirs preserve history, set the record straight, and pay tribute to people and places, reminding us over and over again that we are all humans sharing experiences during our brief stints on earth.
Three delightful “reads” in honor of “We Love Memoirs” Day
ONE: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krause Rosenthal
I have a penchant for “quirky” books. Books that are just a bit different from everything else. Books that didn’t fit cleanly into a genre.
Amy Krause Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is one such book.
It’s a memoir, (albeit extremely unconventional) about her life, only she showcases her existence through snippets of memories organized alphabetically. For instance, under the “c” section, she has a listing called “Car Wash.”
“Every time I go to my local car wash, the owner peers inside, throws his arms up, and say, “Oh, Miss — VERY dirty. Very, very dirty. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring it in clean.”
Or under the “n” words, she lists “Nun.”
“A friend sat next to a nun on a plane. He asked her what she missed most. “Wearing blue jeans,” she replied.
I can’t give this book its full due, but I loved it. Even now, going back through it and looking at the underlined and tagged pages, I think, “I’ve got to read this again!” Maybe I related to it because Rosenthal was a writer, but I believe the Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life to be one of the most charming, not-boring, interesting memoirs ever. Filled with charts and quips and pen and ink illustrations, this memoir is one to be treasured.
Amy Krause Rosenthal was the author of 30 books, many of them children’s titles. She is perhaps most known for the essay she wrote shortly before her death in 2017 at the age of 51 from ovarian cancer. In an op-ed for the New York Times, she advertised for her husband’s next wife. “You May Want to Marry My Husband” in the Modern Love section. Honest. Funny. Deeply moving. I cry every time I read it.
Two: Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg
My book journal records my first reading of Ava’s Man like this:
“Rick Bragg is masterful. His language is real and powerful — so true I can taste it. I want to write like this… I read it because I thought it might give me some ideas about writing my own Dad’s life, but it was so beautiful that it just made me feel inadequate.”
Ava’s Man is the story of Charlie Bundrum, Bragg’s grandfather whom he never met. It’s the story of a hard-loving, hard-drinking man who influenced Bragg’s family for decades. The deep South, the one hidden in the hills and the hollers during the Great Depression, comes alive in Ava’s Man, pine-tar smell emanating from the pages. In telling one man’s story, Bragg recreates his family and the influence of the topography that surrounded them. I love this book. I love this writer. (Well, he doesn’t know me, but I love his WORK!)
Rick Bragg is a journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, All Over But the Shoutin’, a memoir about the impact his mother had on him. He has written twelve books, is a frequent contributor to Garden & Gun, and writes a column for Southern Living.
His most recent book is called The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People.
No matter how many books he writes, my favorite will probably always be Ava’s Man.
Three: The Magic of Ordinary
If I didn’t say that I love the memoir I wrote about my life with “Daddy,” I’d be lying. That book came directly from my heart and memorializes my father, “a man like any other. A man like any other.”
The Magic of Ordinary, published by Amber House Books in January 2021 is about growing up in the 1960s in an average subdivision with a family that does not have fame, fortune, power, or notoriety. Just average, salt-of-the-earth people in an ordinary town in the Midwest. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have extraordinary lives. Life with a loving father does that.
I’m pleased to announce that Amber House Books has released a second edition of The Magic of Ordinary. Beautiful new cover, same great story, available anywhere online books are sold, and in print from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Melissa Gouty is still hoping that Jenna Bush Hager will find her book and make it a monthly club read. Or that an agent somewhere will see it and decide it needs to be made into a film….Or that one of the three books she has in the embryonic stage will make it big!
Until then, she enjoys life and continues to write articles on books, writing, history, gardening, marketing, and anything that strikes her as interesting. She makes a living writing and marketing for the HVAC and plumbing industries. Follow her on Medium for all her articles. If you are interested specifically in books and writing, follow her here on LiteratureLust.com.