Tag Archives: reading

Five Questions to Start Your Memoirs

Hong Kong Memories 001 (640x639)

1964

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.

Scrapbook layout - The Long Story

Scrapbooking – my mother and I in 1970

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.

Practical Matters

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.

The Questions

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.

Write your memoirs

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Memoirs I Love

 

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Inspired By Research; Inspired To Research

I love doing research as a creativity tool. With the internet this is so much easier than it used to be.

When I was young research for any type of project meant a trek to the library. Our high school library was nice but it had nothing on the State Library of NSW downtown in Sydney with its subterranean stacks and endless card catalog. Plus the building was very impressive with its sandstone dignity, stained glass skylights and traditional wood decor.

What’s a “card catalog”? the whippersnappers ask. It was where research began – looking for an author or book mentioned in a bibliography, or going to a subject index and starting there. I was being my own Google.

Card Catalogue at State Library of NSW - just one of several cabinets

Card Catalogue at State Library of NSW – just one of several cabinets

While a tremendous number of books are available on the reading room shelves, many more are kept in stacks.Having found the reference book I wanted, the process was to fill out a request form and hand it (possibly after standing in line) to the assistant librarian on stacks duty, and then wait while they used the mysterious series of numbers that are the Dewey Decimal System to find the location of the copy, send some even more junior person to walk the stacks, and return with the book.

Reference books could not be borrowed, only read in the adjacent reading room. Long heavy wood desks, hard wood desk chairs, art deco style reading lamps.

I’m not really nostalgic for that process at all – it was time consuming and dependent on the assiduousness of the people creating the cross reference notations. A whole trip to the library could be taken up just with formulating the reading list.

But I do still like the visceral elements of this process. Hand typed cards, with faintly yellowed edges and even hand written added notations – sometimes with actual ink pens. The decor. Silence as a palpable thing, reinforced by the sound deadening architecture. The smell of old books.

Every time I designed costumes for a new show, I reinforced my own personal library with a trip to downtown. I liked to immerse myself in period information, making copious notes, sketches, and – get this – having a few select pages photocopied by the librarian! We weren’t permitted to make our own copies with those new fangled and supposedly temperamental Xerox machines.

How Research Stimulates Creativity

Sometimes it only takes a little bit of research – priming the pump – to get my thoughts, ideas, lists and sketches flowing. It’s always good to pause the research and make notes, mind storm some of the ideas, and go where your thought journeys take you. Personally I find if I don’t grab the moment and jot down ideas immediately, they sometimes get engulfed by the ongoing information input. You can pick up where you left off with your reading and notes, but not always with your idea flow.

At other times, I have been at a loss, and found I needed more comprehensive information before anything useful arose in my mind. I might have been looking for a hook, or a way in to my story. I might have been looking for the right visual motif.

Sometimes I found the theme of my vision adjacent to my mainstream research. For example once I was looking at wartime young people’s clothing, but what really helped me capture my design was looking at school uniforms from 10 years earlier.

Research might mean refreshing the memory – revisiting facts and ideas somewhat known – or it might mean finding information wholly new to you. It’s a stirring stick. It’s new ingredients thrown in. You don’t have to rely entirely on what is already in your head.

Research might be goal oriented and directed. The question is “How do I achieve this”. It generally has been so for me when I am designing something, or need to understand particular techniques to achieve a predetermined result – such as my webpage.

Or it might be experimental and exploratory – following threads until something sparks. The question is “Where will this take me?” If you are stuck, research might be the key. It could be a simple as going to the paint department and looking at the new paint colors, looking at a catalog, going to a different section at the Natural History Museum, or following a repin trail on Pinterest.

The Dark Side of Research

Research can be a time sucker and productivity killer. It’s all very well to follow the rabbit hole and surf the endless links for new connections, when you have plenty of time or no deadline. But sometimes it’s time to stop and actually do some creative work.

Mad Hatter Latin design

“We’re All Mad Here”

Some people, and I have certainly been guilty of this myself, will use research as the ultimate procrastination tool. I think we know when we are putting off getting started, and when we are genuinely stuck or need a bit more information. It can take self discipline to stop following the tantalizing tangents, especially now with so much information so easily available. In the old days at the library I was conscious of definite consequences if I decided I needed another tome, and sometimes a look at the clock decided the matter for me.

I know the feeling when I am using research to procrastinate. I start shifting around in my chair, and feeling twitchy inside. Better just to stop then – put in a bookmark – and instead move on the next step of collating my notes.

You can’t know everything about a topic – even if you are an expert. The old joke is that experts are people who know “more and more about less and less” – and that is great. But for creative work, you only need to hold in your head and notes, as much as you need to move forward. There will always be more and new information to find – some of it may be what you contribute.

Let research be a tool that you use, not a barrier to action.

 Research tools

  • Written published material – whether on line or in hard copy
  • Spoken word, oral histories – ditto – but the web makes access so much easier
  • Video material – documentaries, histories, how-to videos on You Tube
  • Memory – interviewing people, finding instructors
  • Trial and error, and exploring materials, as I mentioned in my prior theme.
  • Museums, galleries, and Aunty Mabel’s attic – places with visual artifacts.

Here’s my latest Infographic – about intentional research:

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