Scroll slowly over this picture. Do you recognize the famous film critic Roger Ebert?

I knew that Ebert had battled cancer, lost weight, and kept on going. What I did not know, until I saw that picture and read the article in Esquire about him, was that he has also lost his physical voice and most of his jaw, not to mention that he struggles with his hip and shoulder, unable, now, to sit for any extended period.

This photo was a shock, partly because his website continues to show him with an intact jaw and partly because I have read more of and about Roger Ebert this year than at any other time, without knowing he had lost his physical voice. Essays, reviews, and blog posts, written with clarity, urgency, and love, have been pouring out of him. I highly recommend the February 16, 2010, article in Esquire  by Chris Jones, an intimate portrait of Ebert which may make you ponder, once again, the paradox of finding your life by losing your life.

Look at Ebert’s eyes in this photo and you will recognize the windows to his soul, the part of his face that cancer has not touched, except, perhaps to deepen the pools of wisdom, humor, and warmth contained therein. Cancer has also not touched his mind nor his creative energy. He uses his laptop like a lifeline. No longer able to be televised or recorded, he now “speaks” through his fingers.

“The greatest films are meditations on why we are here,” says Ebert. As his own experience on earth contracts and draws nearer to the end (consciously now), his voice takes on the kind of compassionate strength we recognize from our best teachers, their love of life, and their desire to share the best of who they are and what they know.

Two thoughts about Ebert relevant especially to our own pursuit of the best of memoir in this blog.

1. His top 100 list of movies assumes that 100 outstanding examples of a genre, explored in depth, create a curriculum that anyone else can learn from. Johnny Cash used the same method to teach his daughter the classics of country music. Bennington College offers one of the best low residency MFA programs in the country and uses this motto: “Read one hundred books. Write one.” Isn’t that a great curriculum in six words?

I feel confirmed in the use of 100 memoirs as a teaching/learning device. However, it’s easy to feel daunted by the depth of knowledge required to take on such a task. To get to the list of 100, both Ebert and Cash, spent their entire lives listening and watching much that never made it to their lists. By contrast, I’ve gotten a late start, but everytime I come across another “top 100 list,” I feel empowered to continue the quest. With the help of guest bloggers and great commenters, however, it seems like an attainable goal. If you click on the next link, you will see Ebert’s own great website with a feature I would like to add to this blog some day–all 100 movies (for me it will be memoirs)  in a clickable list that takes you to a review post about that movie. What a great resource. You can also find a printable version of just the movies themselves to add to your Netflix queue or take with you to the store. It took him 13 years to construct this list, adding a new one every two weeks. It might take me as long, but what fun!

2. Ebert’s has taken his calling to find meditations on “why we are here” in darkened movie theaters to new depths as he has fought for his life in the last four years. He says, at the end of the Esquire interview essay, that he has no desire to write his memoir, although he has been encouraged by many to do so. His approach to memoir is appealing to me, and becoming more so all the time. He has shared many personal experiences in individual essays and blog posts. He doesn’t want to revisit these essays or to impose a larger narrative arc on them in order to create a book memoir. If you want a great example of online memoir essay, read his  confession of being an alcoholic here.

If you add up the online personal essays, the Esquire interview, and the top 100 best movie reviews, you have lots of ways to understand Roger Ebert’s own raison d’etre. It’s own very similar to my own. I’ve stolen it from Wordsworth’s long memoir poem, The Prelude:

“What we have loved, others will love

and we will teach them how.”

How would you answer the question, “Why are you here?” Have other people’s memoirs shed any light on this question for you?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Kathleen Friesen on March 1, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Your post brought to mind a line from the memoir I'm reading, “Devotion” by Dani Shapiro. In it she talks about the impact of loss and grief:”My parents' accident wasn't an event that changed the world, but it had changed me. I had risen out of the ashes of that sadness and loss, and did the only thing worth doing. I had tried to become a better person. 'You make it mean something. That's all you can do.'”Like Ebert and Shapiro, I hope to make the losses I've experienced “mean something”, to pass along the love, passion for life, and compassion that were given to me as the most important things in my relationship with others and myself.

  2. shirleyhs on March 2, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Kathleen, thanks for this poignant comment. And for pointing other readers to Dani Shapiro's new memoir. Shapiro was interviewed (podcast) by Barbara DeMarco Barrett a few weeks ago, along with Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I added the link to the comment column on this post:

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