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Family myths figures prominently in a memoir.

Writing A Memoir Is a Statement of a Personal Myth

Let your personal myths enlighten you

While writing a memoir taps into the writer’s personal myths, writing a memoir itself may be compared to a mythic event. The stories of Prometheus stealing fire from the Olympian gods and of Adam and Eve come to mind.

What does the Prometheus myth help us understand?

Well, Prometheus stole fire so humans would have a source of warmth, nutrition, and so they could use it to make things. In the myth of Prometheus, the titan is aware that without fire we humans would not achieve our potential. Making things is a distinction of humankind that has set us apart from other creatures.

The gods, of course, had abrogated the making things to themselves. If humans could make things, then would they not be as gods? (Some modern Christian theologians maintain that creation continues to happen via the agency of humans.)

The Olympians however did not want to share this prerogative and would not forgive Prometheus for stealing their fire. He was chained to Mt. Caucasus and his liver was eaten away every day. (The only thing that would save him was a god forfeiting his divinity in exchange for Prometheus’s freedom.)

This story tells us of the great cost that can sometimes be incurred when we  go against prevailing opinions of the culture and of the age. If there is someone in your memoir who has defied the “gods” and has had to pay a great price, s/he is  a promethean figure. People who defied McCarthyism in the 1950s paid the price of being blacklisted. Another example is of people who refused to jump on the Iraq war bandwagon in 2002 and who also paid a price. For instance, the French were slapped with the approval of the entire Senate for telling the truth about the Iraq war. The name French fries was changed to freedom fries. (Not one of the more reassuring instances of the Senate exercising its collective wisdom.) As hysterically, the American public indulged in boycotting French wines. This is a more recent example of how no one tells the truth without paying for it.

And what do Adam and Eve have to tell us about personal myth?

An analogous story, also from the Mediterranean basin, appears in the Judeo-Christian tale of Adam and Eve who ate from the tree of good and evil. The tree of good and evil is identifiable as consciousness. Ingesting the fruit would make them as gods. Like Prometheus, the two paid a great price for daring to access divine prerogatives. (And like Prometheus, the two and their descendants could be redeemed only by a god exchanging his divinity for their humanity.)

Ok, how is this like memoir writing? Writing a memoir is nothing if not daring to access a divine prerogative—consciousness of your life or of the life of your subject.

In writing a memoir, you act as a god, accessing knowledge of good and evil, you become a maker, a creator of personal myth.

The challenge of telling your personal myth

As mentioned, there can be a terrific price to pay to access the fire of consciousness.

  • First of all, there is the difficulty of creating. It’s not easy to sit down time after time to focus on your story. We all have a great reluctance to do so—we procrastinate, we doubt ourselves, we silence ourselves in so many ways. To succeed, one must struggle with the jealous gods within us who would keep us in ignorance, far from the fire of the knowledge of the good and the evil of our lives.
  • Then there is the challenge of speaking our truth—whether it is big or little. We will garner criticism for speaking out about ourselves. We will be cast away from groups, cast from the Eden of unconsciousness.
  • Anyone who writes is, at times, tortured with memories of loss and grief, of deception and abandonment. It is impossible to live in the imaginary world of a memoir without having to struggle with one’s demons, the black bird pecking away at the liver.

Myths are stories that explain psychic processes.

When you are writing a memoir, you are engaging in a profound psychic process  of re-creating a world, articulating a personal myth. It is a wonderful experience but let the myths enlighten you as to the price you will have to pay.

Keep writing!

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For more on the topic of your personal myth in memoir writing, Making the Story Bigger, Second Draft Work. This MP3 set includes The Myth Journey of Your Memoir as well as Journals and MemoirsSimiles and Metaphors, and Theme in Memoir.



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2 Responses to Writing A Memoir Is a Statement of a Personal Myth

  1. Terry Lee September 17, 2010 at 9:45 PM #


    I apprecieate your encouragement. I have typed about 30 pages so far and I am as far as College. The writing is not easy. The stories come easily and when I re-read I find something to add or change. I know that there is a theme emerging but I can’t put my finger on it yet. I find your comments about english teachers interesting. I have enlisted my 33 yoa daughter as editor. She is a sixth grade english teacher. Of our three daughters I always felt she understood me best. We will see how that goes.

    It is a very interesting learning experience. I have not had much success contacting some of my old friends to discuss growing up together. I know they could clarify and add value. Any ideas you have would be appreciated.

    Thanks again, Terry Lee

  2. turningmemories March 18, 2011 at 2:34 PM #

    You wrote: “I have not had much success contacting some of my old friends to discuss growing up together.”
    Have you tried to send them something you wrote about when you were friends in active contact? Sometimes that can be an inducement for people to respond. It can “snoocker” them—especially if they think you have written something that does not agree with what they remember.


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