Memoir as a Path to Meaning

A recent visit to Dartmouth College found scholar-in-residence Jill Ker Conway attempting to resolve a paradox posed by a handful of puzzled professors.

"They were remarking how extraordinary it was that students could write lucid and thoughtful papers about morality and ethics, yet ignore those matters in their personal conduct," recalls Ms. Conway.

"In response I mentioned the current media culture and the way that it has impoverished people's inner dialogues. Yes, students can sit down and write papers, but they haven't grown up keeping diaries, writing letters, and reading and reflecting on them.

"I think there are many things in contemporary culture that obstruct the ability to reflect on one's own life," she adds.

That the day's chores often preclude time for reflection begins to explain the pervasive appeal of autobiography, according to Conway. She sees today's readers looking to the genre of the self as a stimulus for contemplating their own lives.

A seasoned scholar of history and literature, Conway traces the West's enduring interest in existential issues to the Bible.

"History is such an essential part of Western culture," she says. "We have followed the lead of two great world religions that see life as a journey in time and as a progress that has meaning."

The literary critic Georges Gusdors called autobiographies "scriptures of the self," Conway adds. "When you think of the wisdom books of the Bible, you realize they are personal narratives about meaning in life. And that desire to find meaning and impose a pattern on the ebb and flow of everyday experience is a very powerful force in Western culture."

In her latest work, "When Memory Speaks", Conway sketches the history of autobiography while focusing on the extent to which gender, place, politics, and past shape a narrative of the self. "What fascinates me," Conway says, "is the difference in the styles of self-reporting between men and women. Men are encouraged to describe the separation while women feel a need to suppress or deny its existence."

Various separations have fallen into Conway's childhood. "I grew up in Australia, moving between a very remote outback world and one of the world's largest cities," she says. "I get my zest for life from moving between different if not opposing worlds. I tend to get a bit bored if I'm stuck just in one."

Conway's worlds include graduate studies at Harvard University, a professorship at the University of Toronto, a 10-year term as the first woman president of Smith College in South Hadley, Mass., and, now, life as an author and visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The editor of two anthologies of women's memoirs, Conway has witnessed repeatedly the link between expression and identity. Her memoirs as well as her latest work fulfill a past promise.

"Years ago I told myself that when I turned 50, I would stop being a full-time academic, and leave myself the time to get back to writing the way I loved it."

And will the future lead to a third autobiography? Conway's smile raises hopes. Yet time, she admits, is necessary.

"You really have to be through a stage of life to see what was significant and what wasn't."

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