What Does a Memoir Ghostwriter Do?
A century or so before the modern memoir was born, a half century before Freud articulated the role sub-conscious and unconscious memories play in the human personality, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Every Christmas in most towns across America, it’s staged again as a celebration of the meaning of the Christmas season. As important as that theme is, I believe it also serves as a literary example of the power memories play when they are reframed through the prism of present experience, a process that has become a deep well of the imaginative strength of the contemporary memoir. It’s no coincidence that even if A Christmas Carol is staged in the period Victorian costumes, its story line is relevant to today’s audiences because it’s psychologically rewarding to see Scrooge experience his journey of self-discovery.
Self-Discovery as an Art Form
When writing a memoir, we embark on a similar journey of self-discovery in ways that are profoundly similar to what Scrooge experienced. The genius of Dickens as an author was that he developed this realistic portrait of the process and power of memory well before Freud was born before the role of memories were widely understood and considered common currency in understanding the self.
Scrooge doesn’t visit a therapist to experience his epiphany because that device wasn’t available to Dickens, so he used what was: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. These strange fellows guide Scrooge into one of the grandest epiphanies in all of literary history. This precisely parallels what modern memoir writers do when they remember the early self through the prism of their present self to understand how they can live a more meaningful future self.
Memoir Ghostwriter as a Spirit Therapists
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a tour of his youth through a series of innocent activities of his youth. He views these events from outside the young self. As an objective observer, he can now evaluate his attitudes, his behavior, and trace how he became the miser in the present. Scrooge can’t help but notice his early happiness and good cheer. When he is shown Belle, the girl he loved and desired to marry, and sees her satisfying life with her children and husband and cozy home, his conscience pushes him to regret and remorse. He remembers his happiness; he knows what could have been. These governing scenes are now lifted from the purely episodic jumble that makes up everyone’s childhood memories to significant and decisive moments that shape the person he has become.
Obviously, this story has a strong moral imperative that readers react to by design. Memoirists seek a similar affect by this the process of remembering the self as an outside observer would from the present. When we look back at early experiences from the perspective of our older more experienced selves, the seemingly episodic and random memories become organized in a sequence of meaning. Within each of us are a series of governing scenes that are charged with extraordinarily strong emotional meaning. They are the taproots of our unconscious emotional lives, and in Scrooge’s case, they lay buried so deep, they were uncritically evaluated. When Scrooge took the tour of his memories with the Ghost, he gained insight through observation and analysis of these scenes. He understood the forces that shaped him; he followed the line of choices that brought him to adulthood.
Healing and Personal Narrative
When Scrooge resolved his adult emotions that blocked his growth, he experienced healing and acceptance. For the memoirist, the greatest hope is that deeply held emotions and pain would also find a healthy resolution.
The act of memoir writing itself becomes an act of healing and a journey to wholeness. The past self is united with the present self. In part this is the power memoir brings to the reader and the writer. Healing takes root through storytelling when the author makes self-discoveries. When those discoveries are disclosed in a dramatic narrative, this has the makings of a compelling story.
As Thomas Larson puts it in his excellent book on the memoir the “memoir imaginatively renders our evolving selves and critically evaluates how memory, time, history, culture, and myth are expressed within our individual lives.”
Drama and Reflection
The well-written memoir is a combination of dramatic narrative and reflective analysis of life that is layered over the physical events of the story. The story alone is never enough. Memories must be lingered over from the perspective of the present. What has been faced, what has been lost must be analyzed and disclosed. The memoir is unique from biography, which seldom delves into the deeper waters of a particular stage in a person’s life.
That’s what the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future did for Scrooge. They forced him to analyze and consider his actions; they lingered over his life until he ferreted out the meaning and implications of his memories. They didn’t allow him to rush on until he gathered the insight he needed for the next step. The work of the Ghosts allowed the story of Scrooge to be written as a short novella instead of a longer psychological drama.
Let me explain.
Ghost in the Story
Memoir writing can be a painful process, one that many authors undertake alone with good intentions. But the journey of self-discovery can be both emotionally draining and overwhelm an author in extraneous details. The Ghosts (like a professional ghostwriter) guided Scrooge through the governing scenes of his life, asked perceptive questions to aid the interpreting of his observations, and walked him safely through his experiences. He felt his pain, but he survived and came out of the process a better person.
Scrooge could have taken years to figure all this out by himself. But with the Ghosts, it only took three nights. Thankfully, there’s always a Ghost nearby when it’s time to tell a good story.
The Art of the Memoir is an occasional blog written by memoir ghostwriter, John DeSimone, to highlight particularly powerful works and the magic that made them memorable. John DeSimone is a professional ghostwriter specializing in memoir and self-help books.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.johndesimone.com