Why Everyone Should Write a Memoir

If you haven’t heard (and I can’t image why you wouldn’t have heard, what with all of my sharing about it on social media), I recently sold my memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, to Dey Street Books. The publishing house is an imprint of William Morrow, which is a division of HarperCollins. The book will be published late 2016 or early 2017.

Aside from reveling in all the hoopla, slaps on the back, and drunken evenings of celebration, I’ve learned something so astonishing through the process of committing my story to paper, and I want to share it with you.

In May of this year, when I approached my agent, Joy Tutela, and told her I wanted to put aside writing The Leite’s Culinaria Cookbook and would rather write a memoir, she paused on the phone and asked, “Why?” I explained to her that I was incredibly overwhelmed and touched by the number of deeply emotional comments and emails I received in response to my blog post Bipolar Disorder and Julia Child, My Therapist. Both publicly and privately, people poured out their hearts to me about manic depression: in themselves, their families, their friends. I heard stories of folks who, like me, had gone undiagnosed for decades. People told me, through sobs, of loved ones who had killed themselves because the pain was too much. Others expressed gratitude because the post helped them convince a loved one to go a doctor. I was floored. I didn’t expect this kind of reaction.

That’s when I knew I had to write my story. My whole story.

So for the past six months, I’ve been hunched over my computer writing memories of growing up in Fall River and, later, Swansea, Massachusetts, in a food-obsessed, immigrant Portuguese family. And while food is the theme that stitches the narrative together, also woven into that story are two topics that have tortured me most of my life: bipolar disorder and homosexuality.

As I wrote stories of sitting around dinner tables piled high with food and surrounded by my zany family, periods of black emotional distress, my hysterical and bumbling first sexual encounters with other boys, going to and dropping out of college three times, intrusive suicidal feeling and thoughts, terrifying high and lows of manic depression, and, eventually, the joy of falling in love with The One, I saw the whole of my life. With all of it laid out in front of me in the draft of my book proposal, I understood that this is my reality.

At some point this summer I was crushed when I told my mother one of my fondest memories of early childhood–playing beauty parlor with her while we scarfed down a whole loaf of Sunbeam bread that she’d toasted, buttered, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon–and she had no recollection of it. She even asked if, perhaps, I had imagined it. But then I remembered all of the memories my niece, Callie, has of our time together that I simply don’t recall. To a child, whose life isn’t yet crammed with decades of experiences, certain memories can take up more emotional real estate because there’s little competition. So it’s no surprise that my wonderful night with my mother would burn bright in my memory, and to her it was just another Saturday night. Or Thursday. Or Tuesday. Hell, there are memories that The One has recounted–some as recent as this year–that I simply can’t recall. Too much overcrowding in my head.

I came to see that these memories–whether remembered by others or not–are the foundation upon which I’ve made thousands and thousands of decisions throughout the years. These stories, these people, these triumphs and failures are what have made me who I am. And the greatest gift of this experience was that I came to feel–in the unshakable center of my being–that regardless of whether I sold the book or not, I matter.

I matter.

I encourage all of you, writers and non-writers alike, to go to your computers or open a blank journal or dictate into your iPhones and record your stories. Find the breadth of your life. Discover the importance of you. Learn that you matter. You matter.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I have a memoir to write.

David Signature

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. David – Thank you for this video link. The It Gets Better Project is Outstanding! Nothing like seeing how it is from someone else’s shoes. Perspective is Awesome.

    I have a dear friend who just happens to be gay. While I could never explain why, I have always loved the feeling of safety and security I experience being around him. Now I believe it is because he has always accepted me as I am, depressed or not. That feeling that no one can know I am depressed is huge. Its a 200-lb gorilla on my back (add another animal to the menagerie. No wonder life has always felt like a juggling act in a 3 ring circus). As snarky as this sounds, it is what it is. Accept it and move forward. That doesn’t seem quite so daunting anymore.

    While I can appreciate the need to assuage the manic, antsy, ADD-ish feelings of trying to stay out of the writing studio, please know that you were NOT unproductive today. You have helped me out tremendously and thank you seems so inadequate. I am forever grateful.

    Seriously, don’t you just love the Vita-Mix?

    1. Elizabeth, you are more than welcome, my dear. I’m thrilled that my putzing around and procrastinating helped someone! And I do adore my Vitamix.

  2. David – Thank you for taking the time to create this blog. You seem to have crawled into my head to experience how I have felt for as long as I can remember. Your narration of your life echoes the struggles I have had.

    Finding your site was divine direction. I don’t even remember which site I was on that directed me here. But I am oh so happy (yes, truly happy!) I did stumble over. What I do remember was searching for a bread recipe as I created a shopping list. My black dog (depression) has been barking and tackling me without relief lately and my favorite method of soothing it is carbohydrates. Of course I can justify homemade bread because I have to work to create it. Kneading the dough is as soothing as the first warm-butter-dripping-down-my-fingers slice is. It quiets the black dog’s best mate, a hamster who has one of those exercise wheels in my head where he spins my story of self doubt and worthlessness that are my constant companions. Wouldn’t you know that little guy is the skinniest hamster ever? He can cover a marathon distance twice some days.

    You have given me comfort and hope that I will also find a course of management that is successful. Along with understanding that the black dog and his hamster friend may come back for visits I do not have to allow them to reside with me permanently.

    I look forward to coming back here for doses of hope and inspiration. Quinoa, really?? I have also subscribed to daily updates as I want to know immediately when your memoir is available, preferably in an e-reader version. But I will take however I can get it.

    I feel as though I have made a new friend, and I really like that feeling.

    1. Elizabeth, the Black Dog, and the Hamster–what a menagerie we carry with us when we are depressed, right? Just as that famous It Gets Better Project, assures gay youth things improve, I can assure you that this, too, gets better.

      It does. In time your black dog will want to go out and chase rabbits and leave you to yourself, and your hamster will get fat and and prefer to sit guzzling microbrewery beers and watching HBO than endlessly riding that exercise wheel. I promise, new friend.

  3. Hi David, this is the first time that I am reading this blog. I just found your page today, i commented in one that spoke of writing memoirs. I had no idea that you suffered from bipolar disorder, as do i. I just wanted to thank you for your encouragement, I believe I matter. I believe my story can touch and help many. There are so many things I want to do in this second chance of life that the Lord blessed me with. Keep on being awesome, you are an inspiration to those of us who are just getting their start. I wish you all of GOD’S best!

    1. Welcome, Allison. Thank you for your kind words. I wish you much success with your second chance–I certainly understand how deeply grateful we can feel when given such a chance. March on, head high!