From the Past to the Future: Resolution and Forgiveness for Memoirists and Teacher

Two incidents this week have me thinking about the importance of forgiveness—not just forgiveness of others, but forgiveness of ourselves as well. It’s an important lesson for any teacher to learn—and believe me, we learn it again and again and again—the lesson of how to get past one’s own mistakes and shortcomings.

We want to think we’re invincible. After all, we’re the ones at the head of the class. We have to accept, though, that there will be times when we’ll feel like the dumbest one in the room. We also have to accept the fact that we’re always teaching toward the past, revising our approach and our methods to try to avoid the mistakes we made in a previous term.

We have to be flexible. We have to be willing to try different methods. We have to be sensitive to the chemistry of different classrooms and to meet our students where they are in the current time and culture. What worked a few years ago, may not work now. We have to be willing to change.

Which leads me to a question that a reader of this blog posed today. The question concerns the nature of resolution in memoir. What if the resolution of the central problem that the memoir features hasn’t quite happened? “Is it enough to conclude a memoir with the thought that I am just more aware now,” the reader asks, “heading my life where I want the ultimate goal to be, but am not there yet?”

I’ve always thought that the central aim of memoir—at least the sorts of memoirs I like to read—is understanding. Through revisiting experience as we dramatize it on the page, we look at ourselves and others from as many different angles as we can; we occupy perspectives we were incapable of at the time we were immersed in the experiences themselves. We report, we interrogate, we speculate, we imagine, we interpret, we make meaning out of our lived lives.

As Patricia Hampl has so smartly pointed out, memoir is never really about the past; it’s, instead, about the future. So back to the reader’s question. Is it possible to have resolution in a memoir without resolving the central dramatic problem or obstacle? I happen to believe that it is. Understanding happens internally and may, or may not, be dependent on the resolution of an external storyline. What matters is that the writer, via his or her dramatization of the past and/or present, can see the future. What matters is the internal journeys memoirists take and whether those journeys lead to a place where the writer knows something better than he or she did when the writing began. Sometimes this comes from change, but sometimes it comes from what the writer knows as he or she faces the future.

We teach toward the past just as we memoirists write from the past in order to move on into the future with new knowledge. We have to be able to forgive our missteps in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other as we keep moving toward the horizon


  1. Jamie on April 10, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    Well, thank you for such a directly addressed answer to my question. I truly appreciate that the answer is one I was most leaning toward myself. My journey is, hopefully, far from over but at the same time, I am on the cusp of a new way of moving forward, in ways that I never truly could do before. I found your blog just yesterday and now it’s bookmarked.
    Loyal reader now.
    Thanks so much again.

    • Lee Martin on April 11, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      Just keep doing the god work, Jamie!

  2. Sue Smart on April 12, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Forgiveness! It is the absolute epicenter of transformation, from our “past self” to our “present self” and ultimately, to our “future self.” I am amazed at how a seemingly random, long-forgotten scene from my childhood can unexpectedly bubble up from that murky sea of memory–and then I am faced with the struggle once again. Forgiveness is never a simple matter, but it is a critical one.

    • Lee Martin on April 13, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      Oh, you’re so right, Sue. Forgiveness is never simple. We all carry those moments from our past that we regret, but, as you say, it’s critical that we somehow accept and move on. Thanks so much for your comment.

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