Curtis Seltzer

I discovered late in life that everyone has a story that’s worth telling–because every story has something worth knowing.

Every life has moments when something is done or not done: a decision to bail or stick; an act of kindness or ugliness; even an off-hand remark that bends the arc of your own history.

Most people I know would not think themselves worthy of a memoir. Such writing is thought to be the province of celebrities who produce these books for reasons of hard vanity and easy income. Ordinary people who’ve led ordinary lives and don’t think they’ve done anything out of the ordinary usually believe they have nothing to say. But everyone has something to pass along.

Memoirs are not autobiographies. They’re not blow-by-blow accounts of a life in full narrative voice. Memoir is a snapshot of you taking a turn in your road.

Memoirs are stories about people–what they experienced; what they did; why they did it; how they felt; what they believed; who they loved; what they valued; and how they adapted to opportunities, losses, unfairness and the times in which they lived. Memoirs should be about truth as the writer sees it, but not necessarily as things happened exactly. The idea of truth changes with time; what you write depends on when you write it. I would report “the truth” differently today than 30 years ago.

The late Carey Dowd, my father-in-law who was a physicist by training and inclination and a Baptist by parentage and choice, wrote a book about epistemology. It’s a memoir to his children about his long tussle with the questions of how do we know what we say we know, how do we know a fact and how do we know what is absolutely true.

Dowd’s findings are based on an extensive study of 115 philosophers and systems of belief, ranging from Peter Abelard to Zeno of Citium. He concluded: “We do not know how we know what we know. What we can do is discover that getting close [to The Truth] is good enough.”

He found that setting upper and lower limits of acceptable variance produces a workable alternative to Absolute Truth. This idea of plus-or-minus leeway is useful for memoir-writing. Get the truth down as best you can, without getting snarled in the knots of perfect accuracy. Some truth is in the details; most of it is larger.

Who, then, is a memoir for?

Like all writing, it is, first, for the writer. The urge to have your say is powerful; it goes beyond making money. The writer’s motivation may be to better understand self or what happened–or even say something about a time that has yet to come.

Second, it’s for those the writer involves in the story. Writing your version gives the reader a look into your mind and heart. Yet memoir is as much about others and for them, as it is about you and for you. But this can be tricky. It’s easy to step on toes, even toes you didn’t even know were there. You have to use judgment about what you write and how you express it. Keep in mind Apprentice Philosopher Dowd’s gift to every memoirist scared about navigating The Truth as they see it: close enough is good enough.

Finally, memoirs are for everyone, because they show that we’re all in the same boat. Everyone has had a success or two, and everyone screws up more than once. Marriages creak like mining timbers under strain. Money is largely a binary proposition–too much or not enough. Kids can drive you nuts. Big events–wars, depressions, social and cultural changes–slap everyone around.

Writing is an odd way to connect with other people, both those you know and those you don’t. But trust is key. Each reader has to determine how much the memoirist can be trusted on their words alone. The usual clues we use to measure our trust in others–tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, eye movement and sixth sense–aren’t available. The writer has to build trust with sentences. I always assume that words on paper are clearer than words spoken, because you have to think before you write. (Of course, I could be wrong about that.)

We are alone in life in one sense, and riding along with everyone else in another. A good memoir works both sides of the track.

Curtis Seltzer is a writer and land consultant who lives on a cattle-and-timber farm in Blue Grass, Va. He is the author of How To Be A Dirt-Smart Buyer of Country Property and four collections of his columns at www.curtis-seltzer.com. Seltzer’s forthcoming book,The Point of the Pick, is expected to be released this summer. He can be reached at curtisseltzer@htcnet.org.

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