I doubt anyone other than Zen Buddhists get through life without peeking into the lives of those around them. If we’re a wee bit enlightened, we make our observations with the detached curiosity of a scientist rather than the wild-eyed envy of a maniac.
Hell yeah, they’re younger, thinner, richer, or smarter than we are. They’ve traveled more; volunteered more, set the world on fire more than we have through our puny and inconsistent attempts.
Or at least that’s how it looks from here.
If we actually know these people, we also know some of the backstory not always visible to others. The bankruptcy, the chemo treatments, the estranged kids, the career setback.
For those we don’t know, memoir is the best way to get into their stories. Right now, I’m in the thick of All Over the Map by travel writer Laura Fraser. It’s part travelogue, part culinary journey. It covers a seven-year period in the life of a childless divorcee who wonders if she’ll ever find enduring love. A woman who wonders how she can reconcile who, at her depth, she really is, with what she truly wants and why it keeps eluding her. Who can’t identify with that quandary?
Recently, I’ve read others: Maya Angelou’s classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; one of Natalie Goldberg’s memoirs, The Great Failure; the cruelly sad Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst; bestselling author, Jennifer Weiner’s, Hungry Heart; and a couple of Lisa Scottolini’s joint efforts with her daughter. In each case, I’ve been amused and distressed, heartened and motivated by the human story revealed by these brave souls. They’ve managed to see and share the best and worst of their experiences. They did it at personal risk of humiliation or judgment, and anger from the companions on their journey. They did it without lying (remember James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?).
Many of the other books I favour are a hybrid of self-help and memoir. Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes is compelling and instructive. As is Randy Pausch’s famous The Last Lecture; Mallika Chopra’s Living with Intent?My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace and Joy; The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer; or most of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books starting with Simple Abundance up to and including, Peace and Prosperity. These authors and countless others have parlayed difficult life experiences into how-to guides offering us escape from a similar fate if we listen and learn.
There’s the rub. Learning how to ’fix’ our own lives is hard work and frustratingly elusive in how long change lasts. That’s because it’s always easier to see someone else’s missteps and blunders than our own self-destructive moves. Sometimes, we’re born into crazy, dysfunctional families. Sometimes, we’re slow learners. Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees.
But I’m not giving up memoirs any time soon because great stories well told are a gift and self-awareness is the first step to success, from where I sit.
Hazel Anaka’s first novel is Lucky Dog. Visit her website for more information or follow her on Twitter @anakawrites.