Memoir Writing and You

“Memoirs are the backstairs of history”

George Meredith, English novelist and poet

Our lives are full of stories. Often convinced no one else will feel our lives worth noticing, we pass on taking the time to reflect and record. I think that is a mistake.

Both my grandfather and aunt wrote their memoirs. I cannot say definitively why, and I admit that they have stayed dusty and mostly forgotten on my bottom bookshelves. Recently I pulled them out and have been perusing them off and on. They are fascinating because, as George Meredith remarked, they tell the back stories of major historical events.  Also, they are a vehicle for connecting with long dead family members.

Here my grandfather writes of his grandmother, my great-great grandmother:

Grandmother was a woman who put her religion into practice. Annin Creek had quite an Irish settlement following the potato famine. These people were very poor and had a hard time to get their new start. Grandmother was good to them in sickness and trouble. They called her “Aunt Charlotte.” Daughter Sarah Jane died from tuberculosis. The Irish women came to Grandmother to comfort her. They said, “Aunt Charlotte, do not weep too much. The Blessed Virgin will never let such a good girl as Jane go to Purgatory.”

This snippet gives me entry point to think about immigration in the 1850’s, how it relates to today’s immigration issues, religious beliefs, and to reflect on my family’s values. My grandfather was just an ordinary man who took time record his thoughts and memories never imagining that a grand-daughter he barely knew would reflect on these words some 60 years on.

So how does one get started writing a memoir? Just check the internet and you will find all sorts of advice and online classes you can participate in.  I will distill below several suggestions that seem to be common across all of the websites.

But first, I would like to share with you how I used to get my middle school students to think about memoir writing. It might work for you!  They created visual life maps, depicting major events with illustrations. When they stepped back and viewed their work, I suggested they take note of those illustrations that had the most details.  Those hand-drawn pictures became the inspiration for their memoirs.

Here are two pieces of advice that are common among the experts on memoir writing.

  1.  Write. You know that conventional wisdom says the difference between a writer and a person that wants to write, is that the writer writes. It doesn’t have to be for hours at a time, but write every day.
  2. Narrow your focus. Do not start out to write your entire autobiography.

Now, here is some advice that I thought was compelling.  I’ve added the links so you can read the entire piece at your leisure.

  1. Use fewer detail and focus on your purpose and what gives meaning to your piece.
  2. When you do use details, make them details that connect to the senses. Ensure your reader is smelling the same aromas, is seeing in sharp relief what you see, hearing the tones of voices, and so on.
  3. Think about your purpose and who your audience is.  Do you want to enlighten, persuade, or perhaps just share? Audience and purpose must always stay front and center as you make decisions on what to include, the tone you use, as well as the vocabulary you choose.
  4. Show how these things you write of have changed you, how you have shifted your thinking, your perceptions. Incorporate the impact of these happening on your life.

One last piece of advice from the old language arts teacher: Read a variety of memoir-type pieces before you start to write. Notice how the author draws you in, which pieces cause you to think–deconstruct the pieces you find compelling, not concentrating on the topic, but rather the writer’s style and strategies. What can you learn from other writers?

Places to look for examples:

The memoir pieces you write today become the primary resources for future generations–just like my grandfather’s did. Just think, a hundred years from now, students might read your reflections on the COVID pandemic to learn how their ancestors dealt with a disease that no longer exists in their time.

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