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On the writing of memoirs

Her book on writing lay open to the chapter on Memoirs. “I thought I might write my memoirs,” she shrugged. “You know, so I have something to do when I retire.”

Great idea. Not as easy as it sounds, though.

As a writer, of course I think everyone should write. But also as a writer, I know that it is not as easy as it looks. Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that to get really proficient at anything — from playing a musical instrument to running a business — you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice.

Merely to feel comfortable with a skill takes around 1,000 hours.

In terms of memoirs, if you are not already doing regular writing, you will have a hard time writing your memoirs. They won’t read the way you want; they won’t tell the story you want.

And perhaps most important, your grandchildren will never bother reading them.

A memoir, you see, is not just a diary of daily events. My son tried keeping a diary for a while. Page after page consisted of two sentences: “Went to school. Came home again.”

A memoir needs to identify important moments in your life. The stepping stones, if you will, that take you through the swamp of routines. Each one launched the next step in turning you into the person you now are.

That will probably require trashing about half of what you write. Such as, say, a list of your teachers at school. The various banks you have used. All the cars you have ever owned. These things matter only if they have relevance to the person you have become.

But once you know which events were significant, every detail counts. Colours, sounds, tastes, textures, smells — all of these influenced you at the time. Don’t be content with generalizations: “It was a lovely day…” “He was very helpful….” “I felt awful….” Fill in the details so that your grandchildren (or whoever you’re writing this memoir for) can share in your experience, as if they were there themselves.

And don’t be shy. Memoirs are not a place for prudish reticence. Let the future decide what’s important.

Perhaps two examples will make my point.

My missionary grandfather kept a journal for most of his life. Around 1900, he wrote, “I met a girl today, Winnifred Copeland. I think I shall be seeing more of her.” Sixty years later, he wrote, “Winnie died today. I feel so lonely.” In between, his diaries contained not one word of their relationship; it was too personal to share.

So now, no one can share it. No one will ever know how their relationship matured.

Conversely, another relative wrote openly about her adventures. And misadventures. She left her writings to a university archive. After she died, her relatives went through the manuscript and tore out every page that dealt with her personal life. “Those things are no one’s business,” they sniffed.

For the sake of propriety, they castrated her life.

Another loss for the future.

By Jim Taylor

To be continued . . .


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