Preface and Introduction
[Editor's note: Below is the preface and introduction to GEO founding member Len Krimerman's new memoir, Coming Alive in Dangerous Times (1961-1983). We will be publishing Len's memoir serially, every Monday, over the next month, starting with Chapter 1, A New York Yankee in Louisiana,next week . Here, Len discusses how he came to write a memoir, the value of memiorizing our life stories, and lays out the plan of the book. GEO will be releasing Coming Alive as an ebook this fall.]
Preface to Section 1
I can’t quite recall if this is version 3 or 4 of my memoir, but in any case, it’s most surely a penultimate one, and far from “final”. I’m still looking wherever I can for any sort of constructive feedback – from typos to sentence construction to greater clarity, depth, or detail, to whatever bothers or delights you enough about it to send me your comments and suggestions. Email them to email@example.com; I promise to respond.
Unlike most other memoirs that are primarily personal, mine has a central sub-theme: a call to readers to do their own memoirizing, to construct and share their own stories. For if “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.”, as poet Murial Rukeyser wisely wrote, everyone’s world shrinks whenever anyone’s story is silenced or otherwise goes untold. In the final section you’ll find not only encouragement but some guidance and resources to help get your own story told. You’ll also hear more about “the memoirista revolution”, barely mentioned in this first section, and how to join it.
Memoirs are for all of us, and those of others can aid in creating our own, as ours can assist those of others. Here’s one of mine; may it contribute, in some way, to yours.
“In the twenty-first century, memoirs have exploded from a specialized niche into a central feature of our literary and popular culture. Aspiring memoir authors fill writing classes, and published authors appear on talk shows. We’re in the age of the memoir....I decided to call this trend the Memoir Revolution. By exploring our lives and sharing them, we are breaking out of isolation and drawing together into a global community in which we empathize with each other’s race, religion, gender, economic and geographic history, infirmities, strengths, and longings.” (From Jerry Waxler’s Memoir Revolution; published in 2013 by Neural Coach Press.)
“Until the lions have their own stories, history will always glorify the hunter.” [Cited by novelist and poet Chinua Achebe as a “great [African] proverb” in a 1994 Paris Review interview, where he spoke of “the danger of not having your own stories” and of his, and our, need to be writers of stories which “reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even, of the lions”.]
Introduction – An Unconventional Memoir
TAKING A RISKY STEP
When I first decided to write my own memoir back in the spring of 2014, it was an extraordinary, even daring, step for me. My experience with memoirs was minimal: I had read a few well-known ones, e.g., by Maya Angelou, George Orwell, and Emma Goldman. Yes, as a philosophy professor and magazine editor (for Grassroots Economic Organizing), I had done a good bit of my own writing, and had spent decades attempting to assist other writers. But writing a personal memoir, much less one that eventually would take a very unconventional shape, had never entered my mind.
In short, my qualifications for writing this memoir are as meager as warm days at the North Pole in January. Despite that, or maybe because of it, I quickly became captivated by this memoir project. And as I did, the project itself moved in directions I had neither intended nor imagined. At the outset, though, I began with a thoroughly conventional notion of a memoir: I would be alone at its center, recounting stories that divulged my own successes, failures, friends, enemies, achievements, adversities, sufferings, passions, delights, etc. My readers would be an off-stage audience listening to the storyteller, perhaps entertained, but otherwise disengaged.
Much as I do like telling stories, especially ones that put me on center stage, this conventional scenario did not hold much appeal for me. Why so? Let’s start with four ways the process of writing this memoir differs from many if not most other memoirs. Later on, we’ll return to its substance, that is, the unique sort of story-based experiences on which it concentrates.
To begin with, I wanted to do more than simply recall tales from my earlier years. However precious or worth celebrating those stories would be in themselves, I felt they should also be mined for their fresh meanings here and now; for whatever messages they might hold for my feelings and actions in the future. Remaining in my past, however interesting, was not enough. The memoir I sought would help me generate experiences, stories, shifts and transitions, as yet unforeseen. (The final chapter dives into those “fresh meanings and messages” in detail.)
Secondly, and equally important, I wanted to share center stage with my readers, to offer them something besides my own life stories and the messages or guidance they held for me. Specifically, my memoir would encourage and coach readers to see that they too had lives worth memoirizing, lives that could be renewed or enhanced by the unconventional sort of memoir I would be modeling for them. Believing, as a friend wrote me, that “EVERYONE has great stories to tell.”, my memoir would be incomplete if it did not provide an opportunity – and lots of guidance and resources – for readers to become the memoirists they were waiting for.
Thirdly, my memoir is not intended to be finished, or to reach a pre-set final stage or destination. On the contrary, the version you now are reading is open to and actually encourages critiques, amendments, new interpretations and perspectives. For example, I have begun to make contact with many of the folks mentioned in my stories, requesting that they correct or refine mine, or add their own from experiences we have shared.
And last, there is the non-commercial process by which my memoir was edited and will be published. That is, my editors were a team of peer mentors from many different parts of the U.S., none of whom received any compensation in dollars from me (or anyone else). Instead, they have earned credits for the time and assistance they offered through a network of “time banks” or “labor exchanges”. The credits they earned can be used within this network to access whatever services or products they might need from other members of these alternative banking or currency arrangements. I’m hoping that with your help we can expand this non-commercial form of mentoring assistance beyond this one memoir – but more of that in chapter 5.
In addition, this non-commercial process will also shape the memoir’s publication: it will be published and made available on an “open source” or “pay it forward” basis. GEO, the internet magazine I work with, will first post it serially with a call for reader comments, and eventually run it as an ebook, free of any cost to readers, so long as they agree to offer constructive feedback on it and/or to write their own coming alive memoir along the same non-commercial lines.
A Memoir Based on Two Epigrams
We’ve already seen four of its many atypical features: it aims at enabling readers to directly engage in writing their own memoir, it will be edited in an unusual, non-commercialized way, it would not remain content with stories from my past, but generate messages to guide my future, and it will remain forever incomplete.
But the full measure of its non-conformity came to me from two epigrams, two brief sources of other people’s wisdom I was drawn to. The first of these I found only this past year while searching for a type of memoir I could be happy with. It is attributed to Howard Thurman, an African American minister (1899-1981), who wrote books with such intriguing titles as A Strange Freedom, Meditations of the Heart, and The Search for Common Ground, who, in 1960, became the first black person to take on a ministerial dean’s duties at a predominantly white University (Boston University), and who was among Martin Luther King’s closest advisors throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. (According to Wikipedia, there is no written record of this particular epigram, but it can be found in “…in Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled, p. xv, where he attributes the quotation to a conversation he had with Thurman.”)
Here is Thurman’s quote, a very wise one I think:
“Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This epigram resonated immediately with me; I felt it grasped a truth as important as it was overlooked. Beyond that, I began to see that when we ask, as Thurman recommends, what has made us come alive, we are in effect becoming memoirists – albeit of an uncommon variety.
Rather than concentrating primarily on what we had achieved and/or the situations we had suffered through, our “coming alive” memoir would focus more – much more, if not exclusively – on what was going on within us, and in particular, on what we can call our coming alive experiences. Thurman did not urge us to seek out our success stories, or those where we faced daunting obstacles, either well or not so well. Rather, his challenging counsel is to go beyond these externally focused stories, and seek out ones where we have felt that idiosyncratic or unique sense of our own individuality, our own potency and fullness of life.
In short, coming alive experiences are not only focused inward, but are self-initiated and self-directed. They reveal those times when we become the author of our stories, and not merely the passive observers of them. We create our own path and pace, and no longer walk in the dreams or footsteps of others.
The second aphorism is from John Dewey, the American philosopher (1859-1952) who has written more deeply about democracy than anyone else, at least in my view. Unlike Thurman’s, Dewey’s epigram was very familiar to me; I had cited it often in both my writing and teaching about creating genuine forms of democracy. According to Dewey:
“Democracy must be reborn in every generation, and education is its midwife.”
At first glance, Dewey may appear to be taking us far beyond Thurman’s focus on nurturing the coming alive experiences of singular individuals. And, yes, Dewey is talking here about large groups within whole societies renewing their supposedly democratic institutions.
But how on earth is Dewey’s large-scale revival of democracy to be accomplished, or even started, except by enlivened citizens who have become awakened to their own self-directed lives? As Thurman might have put it, “What the world, and its democracies need, is people who have come alive.” Coming alive memoirs, by offering a process focused on personal revival and regeneration, may well make indispensable contributions to the wider rebirth of real or authentic democracy, e.g., in Lincoln’s famous words: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people...”
If Thurman offers a way for individuals to get in touch with, recreate, and deepen their own lives, Dewey is advocating a very similar approach to enliven and enhance our institutions. What Dewey wants to see in genuine democracies – continual innovation and reconstruction by each successive generation – is what Thurman is guiding us towards throughout the stages of our own individual lives. Perhaps, then, they would agree that both individuals and institutions, at their best, are continually asking themselves what is no longer needed, what should be curtailed or discarded, and seeking new ways of thinking, feeling, imagining, and acting....
In short, I felt that together the epigrams offered by Thurman and Dewey could reorient my own notion of a memoir to an even more specific and innovative focus: coming alive experiences, both of individuals as individuals, and as members of social groups (especially supposedly democratic ones).
At this point, the connections between these two epigrams, and the two sorts of coming alive experiences they celebrate, may seem mysterious, or too abstract. But as we move through the very concrete stories in the next three chapters, the mystery and abstraction should recede.For now, ponder this question: Have you ever belonged to any group – community, organization, neighborhood, family – that honored both individual empowerment and self-development and its own collective self-direction? If so, what was it like, how did people feel about it? If not, can you imagine what how such a group would look and what being part of it would feel like?
Sounds Good, But…
All of this may sound good, or at least somewhat unique, but just how will it work? Here’s an overview of what to expect.
Chapters 1-3 will provide stories from three separate periods in my life, beginning in the early 1960s and ending two decades later. In the final two chapters, the focus will be on you, the reader, as well as myself. For example, I’ll guide, encourage, and even prod you a bit to take up the memoir challenge, in part by responding, in a dialogue, to questions or concerns that might deter you from this opportunity. For the most part, my responses will draw from my own single memoir-writing experience.
I hasten to remind you of my lack of qualifications as a memoir writer and coach. The sorts of guidance I will offer are those of one peer to another and not those of an expert who has spent years mentoring would-be memoir writers. (I will however provide lists of both peers and experts that I have found wise and welcoming.)
The memoir you are about to read is deliberately unconventional, in several ways:
• It focuses on “coming alive experiences” in which individuals and communities alike become the authors of their own stories, and thus begin to tell the lion’s side of our common history;
• drawing heavily on stories from my past, it will mine those stories for messages offering me guidance for future coming alive experiences;
• it seeks to engage readers in the process of writing memoirs of their own, and to provide them with practical, peer-to-peer, guidance for this;
• it has received editing support and critical feedback from a network of peer mentors, who receive no financial compensation, but are rewarded with time credits for their assistance.
• rather than being or aiming to be a finished product, it remains open to revision, expansion, correction.
Given these features, one exciting aspect of the coming alive memoir, so it seems to me, is that it can take us both into and beyond what Jerry Waxler has called the “Memoir Revolution”. For though that revolution rightly emphasizes the increased quantity of memoirs and memoir authors, it does not yet appear to see the need for genuinely innovative approaches to memoir writing, e.g., ones focused on self-directed coming alive stories, linking individuals to their communities, and offering non-commercial, peer-to-peer guidance to their readers. If so, our new model might become a part of, and also enhance, the current Memoir Revolution.
More specifically, in chapter 5, I will call for a “memoirista revolution”, one which agrees with Muriel Rukeyser that “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.” Maybe we will find that by honoring our own stories, and those of others around us, we become lions who can actually challenge the hunters and change the world?
Sound crazy? Check out the summer 2014 issue of YES! Magazine, on “Story Power”, and Cecile Andrews’ wonderful book, Living Room Revolution, in which she writes:
Ultimately, we each need to see ourselves as artists, and our art form is our words. We must feel the same urgent need to express our unique vision as artists do. Usually, it will be in little, seemingly unimportant ways. What did you really think of the movie – even if you disagree with the anointed critics?....Can you risk telling a friend that you’ve begun to writing haiku? Again, these don’t seem like big things, but unless we can be true to ourselves in the little, everyday ways, we won’t be able to stand up for the important issues of the day. (pp. 70-71; and see also what she says about stories being a central part of “community education”, pp. 146-7.)
This memoir, as we’ll see, is at its heart a story about how one person (me) developed a passion for assisting others (you?) communicate their own stories, and share that very passion as memoiristas.
Go to the GEO front page
Len Krimerman (2015). Coming Alive in Dangerous Times (1961-1983): A Divergent Memoir: Preface and Introduction . Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/coming-alive-dangerous-times-1961-1983-divergent-memoir