Angst for the Memoiries: what exactly is a memoir, anyway?



Life is unpredictable.  Easy to say and write, varyingly difficult to experience for most of us.  But one thing humans possess that enables us to compare our now with our yesterday and the days before, is memory.  We create our lives moment by moment, and at the same time we create our memories for current and future reference. 

Louise Bourgeois, the American sculptor (1911 – ) includes these words in one of her installations: I need my memories.  They are my documents. (Cell 1, 1991, [Mixed Media], Daros Collection, Switzerland). 

Memories as documents.  It’s a handy, tangible way to think of the images and words, the snatches of music and feeling, the dreams and nightmares that we recognise as parts of our memory, our selves.  Documents suggest something solid, something less ephemeral than colliding, electrified synapses and microscopic transmitter substances.  Neuroscientists still have no idea about how thoughts arise, how memories appear, disappear and reappear.  But it’s certain that they exist inside all of us, and we can do whatever we choose with them.

Memoir comes from the French for memory, and is variously defined as a note, a memorandum, a record, now specifically an official one.  A memoir can be a record of events or history from personal knowledge or from special sources of information; an autobiographical or biographical record.  And a memoir can be an essay or dissertation on a learned subject specially studied by the writer.  Thus speaks the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a fantastic memoir of words.

So, a memoir consists of memories of just about anything you care to put your mind to – simple enough.  You already knew that.  I’d like to suggest that memories are more than the past.  Memories are now, just as all of time – past, present, and future – exists now, is with us now.  Time, as we view it, is constructed so we can get to appointments, arrange our lives, know which shifts we’re working, make sure we put Lotto in before the deadline.  Time as only this moment can be a difficult concept to get our heads around – no past, no future, only now

Between the exhortation memento vivere: remember you have to live, and the warning memento mori: remember you have to die, you’ll find the memoir. 

In all of those moments, here is your life.  It’s happening now. 

What kind of memoir are you creating for yourself?  What are you up to at this moment?  Reading this article for one thing, on-screen or on paper – or maybe you’re remembering it.  Are you in your workplace or your playplace, or your womb-on-wheels (the car when all the windows are up, the sound system is on whalesong or Benny Goodman, and you’re getting the best run through the lights)?  Maybe you’re in a visiting space (the library, a shopping centre).  Are you listening to music, or a radio broadcast, watching TV or the net from the corner of your eye (those corners are underrated and very useful when you don’t want to check in but simply check out the situation)?

Whatever it is you’re doing when you’re doing all of that and more, is creating your memoir on the spot.  Here’s a simple equation: Memoir = Life = Now.  What’s your legacy going to be?  You get to choose from all of these moments, these strings of moments that we experience from birth – some people remember foetal moments: a continuous, comforting hot bath to a reassuring backbeat. 

Get hold of a stethoscope sometime and listen in to your inner beat; it sounds like poetry, and on good days, when it does exactly what it’s supposed to, it truly does have rhythm.  That’s your rhythm, my friend, that’s your memoir at the literal heart of the matter, counting the beat.

You need your memories.  They are your documents.  Why not begin a journal today – record 5 things that happened today in your life, or in the life of the world.  Record another 5 tomorrow.  At the end of the week, you’ll have a memoir of 35 moments you would otherwise have lost somewhere in those synaptic gaps, waiting to be be rediscovered. 

As Louise Bourgeois says: Art is the guarantee of sanity, so why not begin to create the art of your memoir, create the art that is your life.

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