My mother had led a fascinating life. It was full of travel to exotic places and strange coincidences. Whenever she told a story, people were amazed. Over and over again people made the same suggestion: “You should write your memoirs”.
My mother-in-law led a fascinating life. It too was full of travel to (different) exotic places, with extraordinary adventures. Her life too was full of remarkable meetings, and adventures.
Both these women were the same age, and both are gone now. They lived through a period of time when pretty much the whole world changed. From being young girls during WWII, to seeing the start of the atomic age, the Cold War (my mother took me behind the Iron Curtain when I was a toddler – now there’s a story), the worldwide eradication of smallpox, and the rise of new media. When these two mothers, living on opposite sides of the world, were young hardly anyone had a television in their home, and if you wanted to contact someone in a hurry you looked for a phone booth or sent them a telegram.
In my own living memory there have been just as many miracles. That Iron Curtain – once such a huge part of how the world worked – is gone, as is apartheid. When I went to school we were told we would not always have a calculator in our pocket, but now not only do I carry a calculator, but a stopwatch, a television, a comprehensive road map, a typewriter, an encyclopedia, and a computer with more computation power than was on the Apollo moon landers – in my pocket. If I want to contact someone in a hurry, I send them a text.
My daughter is growing up in a world where information is at her fingertips. She can stay almost as connected with her friends that live across the world, as she did when they lived across the courtyard.
As much as I love science fiction, and the predictive powers of futurists, there really is no way to tell how the world will change further in my lifetime. Where are the flying cars we were promised, eh? Still, if we don’t tell the stories of the past, our stories of how we lived and how our world changed, the fascinating information will be lost. My mother never did write those memoirs, and there is so much more I would like to know about her life.
Memoir vs Biography
A biography is the usually chronological telling of a person’s life story, usually the whole thing.
A Memoir is the story, with usual story structure (beginning, middle, end) of a particular event or period in a person’s life. The sequence of events in one period of the life might be linked by a recurring theme, or the natural bracket might be the beginning and end of an event. The time my mother spent travelling in Asia could be told as a memoir. “84, Charing Cross Road” is a memoir about the author’s connection with that bookstore over many years. Other events in her life are alluded to, but are not the focus. Added together a bunch of memoirs can become chapters in an autobiography.
A biography can be a big undertaking – I know, I’m working on one right now – with lots of research. Memoirs can be much smaller, worked on in manageable chunks. The editing into a “volume” of some kind can come later.
In getting started you might have a theme in mind already. This could be something that you want to record for posterity, or an expression of your hopes or deeply held beliefs. You might keep a journal, and have a wealth of material ready to collate. You might never have kept a diary for a minute, and rely on your memory and repetition of old stories. Memory does funny things, turning a whole period of time to a sequence of moments, flashes, a montage with the transitions gone.
How will you do this writing? My husband prefers dictation. He speaks his stories into a recorder for transcription later. That is fast, by the way. Other people prefer to type directly, or even write by hand. Making notes in a journal in point form, or description are a good start. I like to type.
If writing memoirs seems daunting, perhaps these five questions can help you get started.
1. What are the most significant events or moments in your life?
I encourage you to start easy – with the familiar stories that come out at family gatherings. Or perhaps the big events – your wedding, the birth story of your child – see where these lead. Try mind storming, look for the links between events.
2. What happened?
Simple, isn’t it? Start with the events. Record who else was part of them.
3. How did I get to that point?
The background may become the story. Why you were there? Memoirs are less concerned with hard facts, dates or addresses, and more with your recollections, feelings and reactions. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t double check your dates, but if the information about which flight I took to Tahiti is not available, that doesn’t really matter in the story of my year spent there.
4. What happened next?
Perhaps you will find a link to the next story this way.
5. What have you kept hidden?
There might be an unpleasant moment or annoying relative who always turned up at these things. In writing a memoir, you don’t have to tell the world, but you should tell the truth to yourself. My mother kept many secrets, of which I know only a few. Some were burdens, other were made trivial by the passage of time. She might have felt freer had she written about them somewhere, even if she burnt it later.
On the other hand, sometimes you just forget things until you start writing.
Memoirs I Love
- “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald, later made into a movie with Claudette Colbert, and famous for bringing the world Ma and Pa Kettle.
- “Underfoot in Show Business” and “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff
- “Seal Morning” by Rowena Farre
- “Hello, he lied” by Lynda Obst
- Fictional (supposedly) memoir: “In the Mink” by Anne Scott-James.