Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir

On Tuesday evening, my husband and I attended a simulcast of a talk presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The event, sponsored by Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, was held as part of the library's Everybody Reads 2014 program. Justice Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, was the choice for this year (my review here).

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.

Justice Sotomayor's talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year's Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is "c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community," Justice Sotomayor's topic was not announced.

Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: "Words have power to paint pictures." She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:

  • To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family's story as well as her own experiences.
  • To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
  • To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. "I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history." She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
  • To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we're writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.

As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.

I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that "a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without," and "an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without."

At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes--you felt you were chatting with a friend. Her wit is contagious and spontaneous. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Her generosity with people humbling--over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.

I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.

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One last quote from the Justice:

"Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society."