Essay Healing

Purposeful Memoir as a Path to Alignment

by Jennifer Browdy

Most people think of memoir as a recounting of what we already know about our lives. But, in fact, what we already know is only the beginning of the journey of what I call purposeful memoir, particularly when we’re looking to align the personal, political, and planetary in our life experience—meaning, to understand how our personal choices are shaped by, and affect, both the social and environmental landscapes in which we live.

This profound interconnection is expressed by the Buddhist concept of interbeing. We inter-are with everything else on the planet. The Western attitude of individualism, separatism, and exceptionalism is an illusion bred by the arrogant thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment, which was in fact the beginning of a 500-year period of gathering darkness, leading us to the crisis moment we face today.

We have all, inescapably, been part of the political and planetary patterns of our lifetimes. To take my own life as an example, I was born in New York City in 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and just before the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I was too young to understand the tumult around me in my early years, and, yet, these political and planetary happenings shaped who I would become.

On the personal level, I knew that as a child, in what I call ‘Earth’ years up to age 12, I loved spending time out in the woods and fields around my family’s country home. What I had forgotten- and remembered in the course of writing my memoir- was how that dreamy love of communion with nature had been socialized out of me by my teenaged desire to fit in with my peers, and by my formal education.

Once I wrote my way back to that understanding, I found the purpose of my memoir: describing how my own lack of alignment with the natural world I adored was mirrored exponentially, like a creepy funhouse, by the alienation from nature of the dominant society around me.

Writing my memoir was a process of unlearning what I’d been taught in what I call the ‘Water’ years of life: the teenage and young adult years when we humans tend to want to go with the flow of the society around us, seeking approval in conformity. I was catapulted into this exploration by the challenges I met in the ‘Fire’ years of my adulthood: on the personal level, divorce and career troubles; on the political level, frustration with a relentless politics of domination and destruction; and on the planetary level, waking up- horrified- to the unfolding crises of climate and ecological devastation.

Purposeful memoir that aligns the personal, political, and planetary is a tool for deeper understanding of how we got where we are today, as individuals, as a society, and as an interconnected global system.

It is also visionary: we explore the past and present in order to be able to more clearly and boldly imagine the future into which we want to live.

We look backward over our lives in order to see clearly the values and dominant narratives that have structured our relationships and guided our assumptions about what was possible. We soberly assess how we contributed to a present moment that is undeniably in crisis on the political and planetary levels. And then—in a glorious leap—we envision how we can make our own lives a strong link in the chain between past and future generations.

In purposefully following the trail of our own life experience, we follow a kind of Ariadne’s thread back out of the dark labyrinth of the present moment. It helps to have company on the journey, which is why I ended my memoir with a vision of “doing hope with others”—working together in circles of other people who have awakened to the necessity of aligning the personal, political, and planetary in the quest for a thriving future.

Writing this kind of memoir is a slow, grounded form of activism, and I believe it’s just as important as marching and shouting and signing petitions. The more of us who take the time to do the deep work of understanding our own life histories and how our individual lives have intertwined with the larger human and non-human communities on the planet, the stronger we will stand, together, as Gaian warriors who fight for Life.

About Jennifer Browdy

Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D. is a professor of comparative literature and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where she has taught for more than 20 years. Her new memoir, What I Forgot …And Why I Remembered, is accompanied by her writer’s guide, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, a 2017 Nautilus Award Winner. The author of many articles and book chapters, she is the editor of three anthologies of global women’s writing, as well as the online magazine Fired Up! Creative Expression for Challenging Times. Along with her online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, Jennifer offers workshops in purposeful memoir internationally, as well as author-coaching, editing, and manuscript review. She writes two blogs: Transition Times, on social and environmental justice; and Writing Life, on the art and craft of purposeful memoir. Find out more at

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