How did it change you? When you make a timeline of your life, certain moments will emerge as being transformative. That is where you should begin. There are hundreds of reasons why you might like to write a memoir.
The Kind Of Life It's Been: A Memoir by Lloyd Robertson
Maybe you learned some things along the way that might help others. Maybe you want to document an ethnic or cultural background for your children. Maybe you want to try and make sense of the decisions that you made along the way. Think about who you want to read the memoir, what you want them to know and why you think it should matter to them. This is the basic skeleton around which you will build your memoir.
Perhaps you can organise your memoir according to the people that influenced you. Or maybe it would be effective to jump back and forth between events that happened long ago and the modern-day consequences of those events. Create an outline that will be most effective for the story you want to tell. Just sit down and start writing. Just write whatever you feel like writing about, whatever seems to be flowing. First drafts never are. You can fix it all later. Most novels are about a character who wants something a wife, a new job, an education, a new life, enlightenment but has to overcome some kind of obstacle along the way fear, dysfunctional family, ethnicity, religion, poverty, disability.
Try to reframe your memories to follow this pattern. What were your goals and what obstacles were in your way? How did you overcome them? Some of the most interesting memoirs are the ones written by people who have made mistakes; even big mistakes. In the middle of writing your memoir or thinking about writing it?
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Both methods are good, you just need to figure out what works best for you. Perhaps your partner or a close relative would sit down with you and help you make your timeline. This can be as simple as setting up a basic recorder and speaking into a microphone. You can transcribe it later, or find someone online to transcribe it for a small fee. Or, if you like a bit of technology, there is some great voice recognition software that will attempt to turn your words into text.
It gives you a strong starting point from which to build. You can also engage with someone while making the recordings. You might find it easier if your son or daughter is there asking questions and laughing at your funny stories. Click here to learn the differences.
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Is it all a question of degree? Henry James has long been criticised for reworking documentary materials, slightly retouching letters he quoted in A Small Boy and Others, and Notes of a Son and Brother. Wells, in his Experiment in Autobiography, performed his own sleights of hand when depicting his love life, leaving out many of his affairs to focus on his two marriages. He later wrote a more candid volume: HG Wells in Love, with the stipulation it would be published posthumously. Its frankness highlights how much was previously evaded.
Rather than forming a binary opposition, fact and fiction often move on a sliding scale. Sometimes, the only way to know whether to read a book as memoir or novel comes down to what the author says it is — and here, we ask for honesty.
We read differently according to the expectations raised. They are not alternatives. Too often memories die with their owner, and too often time surprises us by running out. My father, a businessman with no literary pretensions, wrote two family histories in his old age. It was the perfect task for a man with few gifts for self-amusement. Sitting in his favorite green leather armchair in an apartment high above Park Avenue in New York, he wrote a history of his side of the family—the Zinssers and the Scharmanns—going back to 19th century Germany.
He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite. He had no patience with any enterprise that obliged him to reexamine or slow down. On the golf course, walking toward his ball, he would assess the situation, pick a club out of the bag, and swing at the ball as he approached it, hardly breaking stride. When my father finished writing his histories he had them typed, mimeographed, and bound in a plastic cover.
I like the fact that they all got their own copy; it recognized each of them as an equal partner in the family saga. How many of those grandchildren spent any time with the histories I have no idea. There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. I also hear his honesty. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you.
The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions. Their mother was the daughter of a self-made German immigrant, H. Scharmann, who went to California as a teenager in a covered wagon with the forty-niners and lost both his mother and his sister on the journey.
Frida Scharmann inherited his fierce pride and ambition, and when she married William Zinsser, a promising young man in her circle of German-American friends, she saw him as the answer to her cultural aspirations. They would spend their evenings going to concerts and to the opera and holding musical salons. But the promising husband evidently turned out to have no such yearnings.
Home was for falling asleep in his chair after dinner. How bitterly his lassitude must have dawned on the young Frida Zinsser I can imagine from knowing her as an older woman, endlessly pushing herself to Carnegie Hall, playing Beethoven and Brahms on the piano, traveling to Europe and learning foreign languages, prodding my father and my sisters and me to cultural self-improvement.
Her drive to fulfill the broken dreams of her marriage never faltered. But she had the German penchant for telling people off, and she died alone at 81, having scolded away all her friends.
I wrote about her once, many years ago, in a memoir for a book called Five Boyhoods. Describing the grandmother I knew as a boy, I praised her strength but also noted that she was a difficult presence in our lives. After the book came out, my mother defended the mother-in-law who had made her own life far from easy. But she was like that to me. I mention this because one of the questions often asked by memoir writers is: should I write from the point of view of the child I once was, or of the adult I am now?
But if you prefer the other route—to write about your younger years from the wiser perspective of your older years—that memoir will have its own integrity. One good example is Poets in Their Youth , in which Eileen Simpson recalls her life with her first husband, John Berryman, and his famously self-destructive fellow poets, including Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz, whose demons she was too young as a bride to understand.
When she revisited that period as an older woman in her memoir she had become a writer and a practicing psychotherapist, and she used that clinical knowledge to create an invaluable portrait of a major school of American poetry at the high tide of its creativity. But these are two different kinds of writing. Choose one. Now, knowing the facts, I can understand the disappointments that made her the woman she became, and if I were to take another shot at the family saga today I would bring to it a lifetime of trying to fathom its Germanic storms and stresses.
Whenever I asked my father about him, he changed the subject and had no stories to tell. When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know. This brings me to another question that memoir writers often ask: What about the privacy of the people I write about?
Should I leave out things that might offend or hurt my relatives? What will my sister think? Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue. But if you have in mind a broader audience— a mailing to friends or a possible book—you may want to show your relatives the pages in which they are mentioned.
It also gives them their moment to ask you to take certain passages out—which you may or may not agree to do. If your sister has a problem with your memoir, she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past.
But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons. What are the wrong reasons?