Post Memoir


The first question to be explored on this blog, that I hope will become a forum, is addressed to those of you who have completed a memoir, whether published, self-published or unpublished: How are you different now than you were before completing a memoir? Do you have any regrets? Advice to share?

I’ll step up to the plate first with a confession. My novelist friend Jim gave me a backhanded complement the other day, after I’d succeeded in fooling him about his surprise birthday party. “How did you get to be such a good liar?” he asked me, amazed.

“I’m a better liar since I wrote a memoir,” I shrugged, and as I said it, I realized it is true. To order life events, you have to fudge and invent; life is not a story; it is one damn thing after another. So to make my memoir a story, I had to imagine what I could not remember. Now I find that I prefer the version of the past I have made meaningful by structuring it into a story to the rag-tag, willy-nilly memories from which I constructed it. The after-effect is that the accuracy of my memory is shot, while my ability to make-up story has been exercised and enhanced – hence, I am now a better liar after writing a memoir.

At the same time, I am more frank. More honest. I no longer lie about my age, for instance. Hard to do once you have placed yourself inside historical time. Plus, I’m more comfortable in my skin, blemishes and all, so I use less psychological make-up.

My increased talent for lying successfully and my new frankness are but superficial changes, though. Something more intrinsic has changed, I believe, inside the very structure of my brain. Thanks to an ecstatic review I read last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books I discovered Self Comes to Mind, Constructing the Conscious Brain, about the latest research into brain structure and function. According to the author, U.S.C. neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Ph.D., M.D., in the neurobiology of consciousness there are different kinds of self-awareness: wakefulness, in the smaller, primitive sections of the brain, the tegmentum and hypothalamus, and, in the larger, higher functioning cerebral cortex, an awareness of self through time, formed from sense images and feelings, which he calls the “autobiographical self.” This complex, higher brain function which sees the self as a “protagonist” is of quite recent evolution according to Damasio. He writes “I sympathize with Julian Jaynes’s claim that something of great import may have happened to the human mind during the relatively brief interval of time between the events narrated in the Iliad and those that make up the Odyssey. As knowledge accumulated about humans and about the universe, continued reflection could well have altered the structure of the autobiographical self and led to a closer stitching together of relatively disparate aspects of mind processing…a recent development on the order of thousands of years, a mere instant in evolutionary time. That self draws on features of the human brain acquired, in all likelihood, during the long period of the Pleistocene. It depends on the brain’s capacity to hold expansive memory records not only of motor skills but also of facts and events, in particular, personal facts and events, those that make up the scaffolding of biography and personhood and individual identity. It depends on the ability to reconstruct and manipulate memory records in a working brain space parallel to the perceptual space, an offline holding area where time can be suspended during a delay and decisions freed from the tyranny of immediate responses. It depends on the brain’s ability to produce not only mental representations that imitate reality slavishly and mimetically but also representations that symbolize actions and objects and individuals.”

Damasio goes on to explain that brain chemistry seeks “homeostasis”, a feeling of balance and well being. This is why on a bad day that leaves people feeling stressed and distressed, they use alcohol or drugs that instantly restore a feeling of chemical homeostasis, even though they may know that it is only a temporary solution, often with undesirable side effects. Yet, according to Damasio, it is this same longing for homeostatic balance in humans that was responsible for the building of culture: “forms of consolation for those in suffering, rewards for those who helped the sufferers, injunctions for those who caused harm, norms of behavior aimed at preventing harm and promoting good, and a mixture of punishments and preventions, of penalties and praise. The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable – in a word, of how to make it stick – was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution- storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly. Implicit storytelling has created our selves, and it should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures…Individuals and groups whose brains made them capable of inventing or using such narratives to improve themselves and the societies they lived in became successful enough for the architectural traits of those brains to be selected, individually and groupwise, and for their frequency to increase over generations.”

In other words, being an autobiographic storyteller has been an evolutionary advantage! Damasio even goes so far as to suggest that artists who most actively exploit autobiographical consciousness have an evolutionary advantage in attracting mates!  “We need only think of Picasso and smile in agreement.”

At this point, of course, Damaseo is far from scientific research and is speculating. He is writing, as he keeps reminding the reader, in the realm of suggesting hypotheses for further biological brain research.

Reading him and having recently finished a memoir, I have a hypothesis of my own: that writing memoir, like meditation, yoga, and diary writing, is a positive way of establishing brain homeostasis. As in AA and Alanon, the story of self is recast and shared, and a transformation of self results. Working within the uniquely human, evolutionary vanguard areas of the brain, memoir writing alters the willy-nilly, organize-it-as-you-go neurological maps that make up the autobiographical self. Writing memoir re-maps the brain, using the accumulated raw material of sensations and feelings stored as memory. It replaces the relatively disorganized consciousness of self with a more integrated, comprehensible and purposeful consciousness of self. It is self-therapy at the deepest possible biologic level and may one day replace expensive talk and drug therapies, once science figures out how to codify the means of creating symbolic homeostasis that artists have been using for centuries to comfort themselves and others over the human condition. If, as Damasio posits, each individual creates a conscious self through implicit storytelling, then, I believe, that through explicit autobiographic storytelling on the page, we consciously reorganize and re-create the self, achieving a relatively enduring brain homeostasis. We create for our brains a spiffed-up self that makes self-acceptance easier.

How about you? How are you different post-memoir than you were pre-memoir. Please leave a comment below, and include your name (or pen name) and the title of your memoir, as well as information about your publisher, if you have one, and/or a link. However, please, for the purposes of this blog, do not describe the thematic content of your autobiographic work in more than one sentence. The intent here is not just an opportunity for online book promotion. The intent is for all those who have graduated to another level of sense of self – as post-memoir – to share insights into that, as yet privileged, experience.

-Tristine Rainer, Director, Center for Autobiographic Studies