Memoir and Family History: Part 2—Memoir

As mentioned in Part 1, the term memoir can cover many types of writing. Usually a memoir is focused on one aspect of the author’s life. Perhaps you lived through an important historical event, and you want to share how that event affected your life. Maybe you overcame a problem, such as illness or abuse or addiction, and you want to help others through your own experiences. You might want to focus on the joys and challenges of raising a large family or tell readers about your spiritual journey. You can write about how the experiences of a certain phase of your life—childhood, college, marriage—helped form you into the person you are or about your vocation or avocation.

Reviewing your memories and choosing a focus can be an exercise in introspection as well as the starting point for your memoir. The book Thinking About Memoir may help you in this process.

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction and Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, points out that you don’t have to include all the “important” events of your life but you do need to include the small things that stick in your memory. In How to Write a Memoir, he says:

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

A memoir is highly personal—it’s all about you. You decide which aspect(s) of your life to focus on and which specific incidents to include. You also decide the perspective you will write from. You can write from the perspective of the person you were at the time you’re writing about. For example, if you’re writing about your childhood, you can express the emotions and thoughts that you experienced as a child. Or you can write from the perspective of an adult looking back and evaluating the thoughts and beliefs you had as a child. It’s entirely up to you—but you will probably want to be consistent throughout the book rather than jumping back and forth.

Your memoir should be true (unless you write your story as fiction). However, the truth will depend on your perspective. We seldom see the absolute truth—our impressions are colored by our maturity, knowledge, and experiences. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable because ten people can witness the same event and each see something different.

It’s like the old story of blind men describing an elephant: each touched a different part of the animal and described an elephant as being like what they touched. Since each touched something different—a tusk, a leg, the trunk, the side—their descriptions are totally different.

You may describe an incident as you remember it, and others may describe it differently.
However, several recent incidents of false memoirs demonstrate you shouldn’t make up your memoirs. Don’t write about spending time in jail if you were never arrested. Don’t say you won a medal for valor in the military if it never happened. When writing facts, stick to the truth. When writing emotions, you may rely on your memory.

For more about memoir writing, check out these resources:

The next installment, which will appear after Easter, will cover family history.

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