“Men don’t write about themselves”

“Men don’t write about themselves,” Frank confided, “that’s something that women do. We’re just not any good at it”. I was sitting at the kitchen table of 80-year old Frank, who is the subject of my current Your Story Shared project. At the request of his son Bill, my client, I am digitally recording Frank’s stories and writing his memoir. On the one hand, I am glad for Frank’s opinion on this, it confirms my sense that there is a good market for my services. For all the do-it-yourself, fill-in-the-blank memoirs that children buy for their aging parents, it seems clear that the only way a memoir is going to get written is if someone like me does it. And this is because “Men don’t write about themselves”.

Certainly, men of Frank’s generation seem to have been too busy working and living life to be spending time writing about it. But, of course men do write about themselves, there are many famous male autobiographers, diarists and memoirists. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was one of history’s most famous. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography of 1789 is notable in that it is the first American political memoir–and plenty of men have followed in Franklin’s footsteps. Barak Obama’s Dreams of My Father was unique because it helped to launch his political career rather than memorializing it. Obama’s memoir was also unique because of how personal and emotionally revealing it was, qualities not often found in men or politicians.

The political memoir–like the professional memoir–more commonly spins a tale that runs from hardship to success where the key ingredients are perseverance and grit. It tends to glorify loyalty, bravery, strength and accomplishment. Vulnerability and doubt appear only as a precursor to the next great success.  The political or professional memoir gives an expanded view of a man’s public life with rare glimpses behind the scenes. If we referred only to these then Frank would still be right, “Men don’t write about themselves”.

Samuel Pepys’ work represents a completely different kind of work: the poet-philosopher’s memoir.  Here life events simply provide a framework or backdrop to the private and entertaining musings of a writer. Some examples from Pepys, “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is”.   And, “Saw a wedding in the church. It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition”. In fact, it seems as though the letter and the diary had a similar function: both were the vehicle for private and public observations and reflections. In the case of Pepys certainly, it wasn’t perforce the grand and significant events that were being commented on, rather it was the fits and foibles of daily life. This becomes all the more interesting for us some five hundred years later. Such diaries and letters are personal histories that help us connect with and learn more about the time they describe.

For the majority of us, life journaling will be more along the lines of Samuel Pepys: the unremarkable business of daily life providing the backdrop for humorous observations and probing reflections. In fact, this kind of journaling helps heighten and make meaning from daily life rather than simply recording it.

Now to return once again to  Frank’s bold statement, “Men don’t write about themselves”. That many, if not most, men have not written about themselves, does not mean that journaling is an “unmanly” thing to do. In fact, I wonder if journaling really is, writing about oneself at all. Isn’t it more about projecting your perspective, your thinking self, into the world? In my view, life journaling is an exploration and interpretation of my life . This more than anything is what makes it interesting to write, interesting to read and interesting to share.

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