What Writing Memoirs Can Teach Us About Death

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My beloved grandfather passed away recently. He was one of the people I loved the most: the brightest part of my childhood, now a shining star. A few years earlier, I had decided to write a book about his life. While writing the book, I learned a lot more than I had anticipated. The memoir is one of the most popular genres for readers and writers. Fiction is a favorite form for many writers, but there are fewer takers. The market for memoirs/autobiographies and biographies, on the other hand, is relatively huge. There is something fulfilling, almost evolutionary about the preservation of one’s life story. Reading someone’s life story is also both the ultimate form of voyeurism, but it’s also memory keeping, just like taking pictures or even posting on Instagram. And who are we and what is our impact without the memory of all our past, of all our successes and failures? But the relationship between the reader and the author of a memoir is more than just memorization. This raises questions not only about how to live, but also about how to die.

The book about my grandfather took many forms. He was a very prestigious and successful architect, so we thought we would photograph all of his work. So we thought of writing it for a mainstream publisher. My grandfather seemed very excited about the project. But as with all seemingly huge projects, it was hard for me to focus and pin it down. It remained half completed. My quest for perfection has left it unfinished.

When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, we all flew to visit him. At that time, a friend of his had come. He asked me where the book was and told me I had to finish it because there was a literal deadline. Although my grandfather was brave, I don’t think he wanted to leave right away.

As he got older, he used to tell his grandchildren many, many stories. Unfortunately, at that point, we pushed him aside, even choosing not to sit with him in the restaurant, so he wouldn’t “bore” us with another story. But there we were—faced, for the first time, with death. This protector, this legend and all his stories had a deadline. As a writer and editor, I’m used to working to a deadline. I knew how much I wanted to remember my grandfather as I did then. I knew the depth of emotion I felt now would be a catalyst. Later, memories might fade and acceptance might set in. I didn’t know if I would be able to access what I needed afterwards.

I wanted to hang on, hold on to the memories that kept coming back and access them whenever I wanted. I wanted my grandfather to know that his precious stories would be recorded and remembered. His contribution to architecture will not be forgotten. This, I felt, was very important to him. So, I poured everything that was in my head and my heart onto paper. We used the audio recordings we had of him over the years – taken from earlier versions of the book. But I also collected and listened to as many stories as I could, acknowledging that these were some of the stories I didn’t care about earlier. Each nugget became precious, a view, an angle in the kaleidoscope that was my grandfather’s life. As I have told many people before, he lived the life of 100 people. I didn’t even cover a percentage.

Can a simple narrative ever be a complete “summary” of a person’s life? My grandfather loved Nazi films; he built 47 hospitals; he slept in the bed of the Queen of England; he loved Thailand. I loved the tone of his voice, the way he made me feel when I walked into a room. Where would we put these details? The pieces ?

I had a hard time keeping the book a surprise and letting him know I was doing it. But then I remembered his enthusiasm for the project and let him know. From then on, he sent me voice notes whenever I had the energy. He shaped a lot how he wanted to be remembered. One of his quotes was, “If I were to write an autobiography of my life, I would write about my experiences rather than my successes,” and that’s how we shaped the book.

Recently I read a wonderful memoir, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, His Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (2019), in which a psychotherapist recounts her experiences with her patients, what she learned about life and therapy through them. One of the patients is dying of cancer. And she meticulously plans her own funeral. In therapy, she grapples with the question, “Will I be remembered?” How will I be remembered? and the therapist posits that what she’s asking is: Will a part of me stay alive in you?’
That’s what I wanted to pass on to my grandfather with this book. That a part of him, a small part of his hastily told stories, will live on in me. That the stories he urgently told us would be kept alive.

Memoirs can take a variety of shapes and forms. But more often than not, they are more than just a narrative. There is a strong emotional thread that runs through most accounts of someone’s life. What they want to be remembered for, to right wrongs, to clarify mistakes. A memoir can be a catharsis or a self-exploration.
Memoirs always follow the major dramatic points in a person’s life story, whether it’s pain, success, or relationships. And they ask about those plot points. Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a catharsis, an exploration of grief. Closer to Home, Rituparna Chatterjee’s Magical Realism Memoirs (The Water Phoenix, 2020) is an exploration of abuse and catharsis. At Rohini Rajagopal What does a lemon squeezer do in my vagina? (2021) is a narrative of infertility. Memoirs of Vivek Tejuja, So now you know: Growing up gay in India (2019), focuses on his life as a queer man, and Lisa Ray’s memoir (Close to the Bone, 2019) is about surviving cancer. When I asked Chatterjee about her book on my podcast, she said “it’s a book about healing your wound.” Business memoirs also follow dramatic arcs in the protagonist’s story: deals gone wrong, bad decisions, life lessons learned from mistakes, relationships and mentors.

book covers

Prior to the experience of writing for my grandfather, I had some ghostwriting experience. I ghost-wrote two very different autobiographies of businessmen. And it was a very personal experience. I must have spent a lot of time with these people, hearing them tell their stories – and I could feel that I had to understand it just that way; it was part of building the legacy. One of the books was more about relationships, the other was about childhood experiences. Success, like in my grandfather’s book, was a byproduct of risk and failure. That’s how people remembered their lives. Through moments, not numbers.

In the end, when I asked my grandfather for his stories, his voice took on the same intonation and the same pride as those businessmen. Those who write their memoirs are proud: of how they lived their lives, of their accomplishments, and most importantly, of their experiences and learnings. To survive and thrive. They all have time to look back and reflect. Those who write their memoirs came out the other side. Much like the dramatic arc of a story, memoirs are the resolution.

We build stories as we live life. We see patterns, we raise questions that swirl around in our heads for months – that’s why I write personal essays, to make sense of it all. We gain new perspectives on chess and a new empathy with tragedy. A deeper understanding: wisdom. And that’s the wisdom I’ve seen people want to leave behind. This is the legacy they wish to perpetuate. It is the act of writing a memoir. For me, it was an act of love.

(Tara Khandelwal is the founder of storytelling company Bound. Her podcast, Books and Beyond with Bound, is in the top 1.5% of global podcasts. She is an alumnus of Columbia University and lives in Mumbai. )

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