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Discovering the Why of Memoir Writing

Memoir Incubator writer Tunji Oke contemplates the reason he is writing his memoir and discovers his desire to preserve his father's legacy.

By Tunji Oke

June 22, 2023

I am a pack rat. Ever since my college days, I’ve lugged around boxes of stuff, moving them from apartments to homes, from state to state. I keep telling myself, I will use them someday.

Recently, I’ve been spring cleaning, in preparation for my town’s quarterly recycling event. In the garage, now used for storage rather than for the car, are old boxes held together with brown packing tape. Inside, I found notebooks, notepads, and loose sheets of various sizes four-by-six, eight-by-eleven. I dusted off vignettes, short stories, and writing exercises to prompts from workshops I took.

I was amazed that I had been writing all along but saddened at not having anything published.

Being an English minor, I learned how to craft a good story. In college, I devoured Shakespeare and other Western Canons. Since then, I read the works of notable writers like Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie, for pleasure and to learn the craft.

That I embark on creating a memoir is a shift. The writing workshops I’ve attended in the past couple of years stress that we must know the WHY we are writing our memoirs. It helps agents and publishers identify your book’s audience. It helps readers develop an affinity for the narration.

People have written and continue to write memoirs on diverse topics and themes: abuse, family sagas, failed marriages, medical mysteries, and war. I have no trauma. I am not a celebrity or a public figure. So WHY and how would mine be different? 

Jennette McCurdy said of her popular memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, that she wanted to explore the “honest reality” of her life in a complex child-parent relationship that people don’t discuss.

At his passing, I wrote my father’s obituary on Facebook, it read like Nelson Mandela’s, but at a local level in our hometown in Ogbomosho, Nigeria. He pioneered traveling to America, taught many subjects, mentored students, and trained teachers. He gave back to the community by volunteering in the leper colony, and blind school, took the boy scouts to meet the Queen of England, and played the organ for the church. People that knew him showered him with praises and accolades. But unless his story is written, his memory will soon disappear. I don’t want that to happen, I don’t want to forget.

In his memoir, Between Them, Richard Ford said he wrote about his parents because they were part of what he became. He was an only child and writing about them was his way of keeping them present in his memory. With my father as the central figure in my work, I realized my reasons were similar to Ford’s.

  • I have no audience except myself. My mother never asked me to memorialize my father’s story and neither did my siblings. I want to write about him for me. I want to remember the relationship we had and explore the conversations we might have had.
  • I am lucky to have taken the parenthood path and I see this story as a way to preserve my father’s legacy for my children and our extended relations. A few years from now, he might be mentioned in some conversation and hopefully in a fond way.
  • What I also realize is that I am writing about what I have lost; I lost the only connection I had to my ancestors. Their story died with him. I am writing about his life so he doesn’t disappear. At the same time, I am exploring aspects of life from the culture I was born into. Although in my youth I frowned upon traditions as unnecessary and archaic. I even ditched my Yoruba (my birth language) classes, on account of it having no place in the modern world. 

I am not advocating that you must know your WHY before writing the first sentence of your narration. It was murky for me as well when I started. The Memoir Incubator is helping. It took me and my cohort through prescribed exercises akin to questions asked in a therapy session which led me to deeply explore my WHY for the memoir.

Discovering the WHY is something every writer must contend with sooner or later in the writing process. It is your guiding post that keeps you in focus through those lonely and difficult moments when describing a scene, a character, and when capturing the right emotions and tapping into the nuggets of long-buried memories. 

Tunji Oke

Tunji Oke writes essays and short stories, and is currently working on a memoir about his father in book inc's Memoir Incubator program.

Tunji Oke writes essays and short stories, and is currently working on a memoir about his father in book inc's Memoir Incubator program.