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Going Deeper in a Memoir: Look at “Life’s Failed Contracts”

This is a first in a series of posts about going deeper in a memoir.–DL

Understanding “Life’s Failed Contracts” is necessary for going deeper in a memoir.

This post is about going deeper in a memoir, deeper even than you thought you could go when you started. This may be hard, but take a look at the contracts with life we make and the terrible disappointment that inevitably comes from making them. All of us at some time or other have made such a contract with life–in fact, we make them over and over again until we finally grow up and become present to the unfolding reality.

Let’s make a deal.

Making a contract goes like this: “if I do this or that (usually a version of ‘be a good boy or girl’), then life will give me what I want.” (Usually this contract doesn’t take into account what others want!)

In the concrete, as a young person, we might bargain with life by studying hard and getting good grades. “If I do, then I’ll deserve to have a great job so I can pay my student loans quickly.” Since we have not paid attention to finances, we graduate with $50,000 in debt and land a job as boy Friday at a small publishing company. “Not fair–I studied hard!”

Another frequent contract with life is made by parents who go to church as an insurance that it will give them a great family. When the kids grow up rotten, they complain, “Unbelievable! How can they turnout this way after all the church we arranged for them!”

Or, after a divorce, we become bitter and we project onto others. “If only my husband (wife) had not been so selfish!” (Meaning: if he had done what I was demanding from him/her as per my good-husband/wife contract!)

This is a literary post, after all.

My goal in this post is not to get you to stop making one-way contracts with life that are bound to go bad on you (hey, but wouldn’t it be great if the article got people to stop making contract with life!). This post is more literary than psychological in intent. Examine the lives of the people you are writing about–whether that person is you or someone else–for evidence of a contract made with life, a contract that inevitably failed as they all must since life neither offers contracts nor honors yours with it (if the truth be told).

Exercise for going deeper in a memoir

  1. Look for an aftermath in a life (a time of anger, bitterness, of being stalled).
  2. What went wrong, fell apart, in the person’s life in the month and year before? Write about that using details.
  3. What do you think was the person’s implicit contract with life (usually it is not explicit)? Clue: pay attention to all the complaints about “That was not fair” and “I didn’t deserve that.”
  4. How did the person live out the contract with life? Use details to write about the person’s life. Write about how he was a “good boy” or she a “good girl.”
  5. Now, put all of this together and write a story about this failed contract and its consequence. Just write the story for now. Later you can work at integrating it into the memoir.

Good luck with your writing—and know that going deeper in a memoir is possible. Do it.


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