I'm proud to host author Monica Wesolowska here today, with an original post on the power of memoir. She explains the gift of voice through courageously telling our story; we help ourselves, we help others. We heal, we connect, we're less lost and alone.
Read what she has to say, and I know you'll be compelled to find out more about her debut memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life.
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From Scream to Smile: The Power of Memoir
By Monica Wesolowska
Before my son Silvan was born, I was happy with fiction. I read it. I wrote it. I taught it. I considered fiction one of my most intimate friends. Fiction gets us out of ourselves, I told my students, and into the skins of strangers. Fiction teaches empathy. But what amazed me more in fiction than new characters was getting lost in a new form, feeling bewildered by the shape of a story, then coming bang up against a truth at the end that was both familiar and startling.
But after my son Silvan died, the reader in me changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t after newness. I wanted only one story. I wanted memoirs about real mothers who’d lost real children—to miscarriage, stillbirth, drunk drivers, sudden illness. Though loss is everywhere, it rarely enters ordinary conversation and I didn’t want to be alone in my loss. I wanted to find what felt like Silvan’s story.
In praising memoirs, people often call them “brave,” but when I began my own, there was no bravery about it. By then, I’d had two more children. They were healthy and happy; I was part of ordinary life again. But still I felt tempted whenever someone asked, “Don’t you want a third?” to scream, “I’ve already had three. My first son’s name was Silvan.”
So really my impetus for writing a memoir was this simple scream: “Silvan.”
But writing modulates the voice. I couldn’t scream forever. Once I found a voice with which to hold my particular son in all his universal newborn sweetness, I questioned the scream behind it. If I still felt like screaming, why? What questions haunted me? The questions I found were fundamental, big enough to fill a book: Did we make the right choice for Silvan? Did we love him enough? And where is Silvan now that we are mourning him?
Loss is shapeless. Memoir gives shape. That’s part of its power.
But having now sent the memoir out into the world, I find an even greater power to the form. In memoir, we create vessels for other people’s memories.
Last week, a woman came up to me after a reading. “I also had a son,” she said, “27 years ago. But after he died, I never had more children. So no one thinks of me as a mother. It just never comes up, but this memoir, it helps me remember.”
“What was his name?” I asked.
She looked surprised, then pleased. “Jubal,” she said tenderly.
“That’s a beautiful name,” I said.
She beamed. “So is Silvan.”
Monica Wesolowska lives with her family in Berkeley, California and has taught writing at UC Berkeley for over a decade. Click to learn more about her memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life.