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Is it narcissistic to write a memoir?

Posted July 26

"I don't want to brag about myself" is a refrain we hear often, especially from those of a certain generation. Taught to be polite, self-sacrificing and not to toot one's own horn, these good folks have trouble with the very idea of preserving their life experiences, even when their children or grandchildren are clamoring for stories.

One gentleman of our acquaintance, who had a fascinating career as a public servant, acquiesced to his friends' and children's desires to read about his life and finally decided to write a personal history.

However, because he didn't want it to be too long, he trimmed it down to what he termed the "essentials" — lists of where he worked and when, the places he had lived, etc. We knew he had a lot of great personal stories because he had told them to us in conversation: about a famous person who had greatly influenced him; a funny story about how he met his wife; and his valiant battle with a serious illness.

Yet, none of these stories were in his history. When we asked him why, he replied, "Well, I didn't want to bore anyone with the personal stuff." Yet it is the "personal stuff" — his hardships, his humor, his failings, his triumphs — that his children want to know. They don't care as much about the facts and figures; they want to know him better as a human being. They want to know how he overcame hardship, how he achieved success and what his family has meant to him.

“What nobler effort could there be than to attempt to shed some light on the frightening, generous ways of the world, even if it’s a ha’ penny’s worth?" the memoirist Sara Mansfield Taber wrote on her blog at sarataber.wordpress.com. "We all read memoirs — all books, in fact — to discover pieces of ourselves on the page, to feel less alone. To comfort a stranger, rather than to flaunt oneself: this is the memoirist’s highest hope. ”

Writing about your life is a generous act. It takes courage, it takes time and it can be painful and exhilarating in equal measure. But the effort is worth the satisfaction of knowing that what you write may someday "comfort a stranger."

We have been comforted, taught and inspired every day by the stories of others: family members, clients, ancestors and, yes, complete strangers.

Nearly every person we meet, when we tell them what we do for a living, responds positively: "What an interesting job! It must be fascinating to hear all those stories!" (Indeed, it is, which is why we love it.)

Why then, do so many insist that “nobody would be interested in my stories?”

If you hesitate to tell your own story because you feel it would be self-serving, narcissistic or bragging, ask yourself this: Do you wish you knew more about your ancestors? Your parents? If the answer is yes, then it's not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps your descendants might wish to know more about your life.

Writing sensitively about your life is not selfish. It is a gift, an honorable offering to yourself and others in your circle of influence. As we write our own stories, it is our hope that whoever reads them will not just witness our lives, but gain something they can use in their own lives as well.

Tom and Alison Taylor have helped hundreds of people, businesses and towns tell their stories in books and video. They are authors of the book “How to Save Your Life, One Chapter at a Time.” Their blog is at picturesandstories.com.

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