Thursday, September 17, 2015


Lately my reading has veered toward the biography section at the library. (This is one of the areas untouched by the jumble method of shelving, which I ranted about a few months back—and the fact that nonfiction has escaped is an occasion for thankfulness.)

Biography section is a convenient umbrella that includes autobiography and memoir. I love memoir. Memoir is a way of living part of another person’s life and understanding not only what happened, but one view of why it happened, and how it has impacted the writer’s life.
Looking at my home-grown library, collected over the past fifty-plus years, I find a large number of non-fiction books that are based on memories and recollected stories: All of May Sarton’s journals; the James Herriott animal stories from his veterinary practice in Yorkshire; Russell Baker’s Growing Up, about his youth in the 1930s; C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. . . .
The list is endless. There’s even a category on called “100 Biographies and Memoirs to Read in a Lifetime.” Here are a few you might recognize:
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
Anne Frank’s Diary
Seabiscuit and Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
The Story of My Life, Helen Keller
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
Night, Elie Weisel
As you can tell by the variety in the above list, there’s no one way to write a memoir. Bill Bryson’s is a humorous tale of outdoor life. Hemingway writes of the explosive political times in the 1920s and 1930s. Frank McCourt tells of an Irish childhood lived in poverty. Anne Frank’s diary recounts her family’s hiding from the Nazis in World War II. Helen Keller writes about her life as a multi-handicapped child.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit brought the 1930s horse scene to life; her Unbroken, a World War II survivorship story, was painful to read, but remains one of my favorite books about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of forgiveness.
The late Maya Angelou was a poet, but her memoir helped her rise above an abusive childhood as an African-American girl.
Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa became a lovely movie, based on the Danish woman's various writings—her stories, letters, and articles.
Elie Weisel’s Night is book one of a trilogy in which he ponders serious questions that arise for a survivor of the Holocaust.
There you have a starter list of books to look for, if you want to experience someone else’s life, culture, and time frame.

Now for the big question—Have you ever thought about writing a memoir of your own?
(Don’t make ugly faces; you haven’t heard the rest of the idea.)
If you’ve managed to live through childhood, marriage/career, children (your own or someone else’s), you have a built-in audience. For example: Do your children know where you grew up? What it was like to live on a farm, in a big city, on a river, in the mountains, in another country? Do your children know their grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins? Did your great-grandfather fight in the War Between the States? (Mine did.)
There’s more to Life than kids’ll learn in a museum. Why not tell them your story? Write about the time you won a blue ribbon for your prize animal/plant/project at the 4-H Fair. Never won one? Write about not winning. Who did win? How did that feel? Did it makes you try harder? Or give up?

What did you do for fun before technology came along and gave us hand-held games, computers, and videos? What was a treat in your family? How did you celebrate birthdays (if you did)?
My family never travelled much for vacations. In fact, vacations times were when we "got caught up on things around the place.” (Maybe that’s why I was never a fan of summer vacation once I went to school.) If you were one of the families that went to Grand Canyon, Grand Ol’ Opry, Epcot Center, camping in the wilds of Montana . . . wherever . . . write about it! Make it come alive.
Okay, you don’t like the idea of writing about yourself. Just remember—no Memoir Police are going to come along with a red pencil and mark your comma splices or circle a misspelled word. This is not for publication, except for whoever you share it with.
So--here’s another take on the subject of Memoir.

Do you know folks who live in nursing homes, retirement communities, assisted living, or other such types of housing, who may have stories to tell?
I used to walk at the Y with a man twenty years older than I, who hadn’t grown up in our town, but had moved here as a young man and become acquainted with—to hear him tell it—practically everybody over the age of ten. Wow, did he have stories to tell! And his memory was prodigious. He collected stories the way I collect books. I wanted him to go to the genealogy center here in town to record some of his stories (I knew he’d never write them down), but he hasn’t done it yet. He now resides in assisted living locally and continues to get out and about if someone drive him.
There are many, many books in print, along with helpful websites, that tell how to write a memoir. But you don’t need to read those yet. Just get a spiral notebook, a good pen, and put on your smile. Sit down in a comfortable, and let the memories roll.

If you're writing someone else's story, let that person decide if the story is to be shared.

if you’re writing your own story, don’t share it till you’re ready. And if you’re never ready? Hey, that’s okay, too.

Keep in mind that you may not have been old enough to remember some world-wide things going on in your or your subject's early life—such as The Great Depression, World War II, or the Korean Conflict, or the Beatles’ invasion of the U.S. So, do some research. That’s what Google is for! You’ll be glad for the details to make these remembrances live for the reader. And details provide a context for what you or someone else can remember about family, work, or school.

Kodak has us already in the mindset of “making” memories.
How about putting a few of them on paper?



1 comment:

  1. I have Debbie Reynolds waiting on my Kindle right now and James Herriot is one of my go-to reads. I love memoirs.