If you’re reading this, you’re likely a writer. You create memorable characters that breathe with life, wonderful settings readers can vividly picture, riveting stories we follow from page to page. Perhaps you’re ignoring one riveting story that takes place in a wonderful setting, featuring a memorable character – you.
Have you ever thought about writing your own story? Many writers never consider memoir, assuming it would be of no interest to anyone – an ordinary life in an ordinary place. But thousands of people who felt that way became the subject of The Greatest Generation, and I doubt anyone would consider their stories dull.
Even if you assume you never did anything that remarkable, if you’re over fifty you’ve lived through remarkable times. The world you grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Stories set in the past entice younger readers who can’t picture a world without cellphones, social media and everything on demand. Older readers enjoy reminiscing about simpler times, when you had to get off the couch to change the TV channel. If you had a TV. If you still doubt the interest exists, consider the popularity of DNA tests for ancestry and genealogy research.
Memoirs generally focus on a theme or experience rather than a chronology of events. They differ from autobiography in that they involve memories, so memoirs don’t require the same standard for accuracy as autobiographies. Laura Kalpakian, author of The Memoir Club, says, “The memoir is not and should never be confused with the truth…alteration is inevitable. As a result, truth belongs to the teller.” Walter Zinsser, who wrote Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, adds the importance of “integrity of intention – how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us.” Once you have the pieces, they need to be assembled, what Zinsser calls “imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.”
To better understand the genre, I spoke with three authors who write memoirs. All are in their eighties. I met them in writing groups, but truly got to know them through their writing.
Gordon Labuhn’s book, My Gang, tells the story of a boy growing up in 1940’s Detroit. Gordon wore glasses, making him a target for bullies. To avoid getting beat up he formed a gang, albeit one that resembled the Little Rascals more than the Crips. The rest, as they say, is history – a history filled with hilarious misadventures, a little drama and a few tears.
That history continued when Gordon, deciding he needed to expand on his life story, wrote a sequel. “The writing of Whirlwind: The (Mis)adventures of a Man in Motion, was inspired by concern that My Gang as a standalone memoir would give a distorted view of my life after…my gang-days lifestyle.” Gordon, who brings joy and laughter to everyone he meets, filled his memoirs with his unique sense of humor.
Avis Rector grew up on Whidbey Island, Washington, in the farmhouse she and her husband still call home. Born in 1934, she’s too young to remember the Great Depression, but had heard many stories from her family about what life was like on the Island during that era. Those stories, combined with her memories, grew into her novel Pauline, which is loosely based on her family history. Although fictionalized, she’s enriched the book and its upcoming sequel with actual people, places and events, such as the Civilian Conservation Corp’s building of Deception Pass Bridge, an architectural masterpiece that for the first time linked the island with the mainland.
Her series began with a desire to write. “I had already written my autobiography for my three daughters. They wanted more stories about the family.” She took a creative writing class and wrote a piece based on a story her father had told her about a couple who became the featured characters in her novel. “When I reached 5000 words my instructor told me I had to (edit) it down to be a short story or turn it into a novel.” She credits her heroine Pauline as her inspiration. “She pushed me to invent situations, expand on the family stories by bringing in made-up characters.”
Barb Bland has always been athletic, creative, an animal lover, and intellectually curious. When I asked what inspired her to write her memoirs, she told me, “since I have no two-legged children, these stories are my ‘offspring’ and my only claim to immortality.” Barb left her home and family in the early sixties to study in France, where she became an au pair for a French family. “I was anticipating a return to France after having lived there fifty years earlier and wanted to remember and record ‘how it was,’ knowing that it had vastly changed.” This led to her work in progress, French Lessons, which chronicles her time abroad. Barb can write about the most ordinary incident and make it interesting, so you can imagine how fascinating her memoir will be when it’s completed.
Her first publication, Running Free, recounts her experience with a “throw-away” dog whom she rescued from a shelter. “I had a great dog, wanted to ‘keep him with me’ long after he passed from this world…(I) wanted to encourage others to attempt the ‘impossible’ and show them how I did it.” She donates the proceeds of the book to WAIF, the local animal shelter, one of the first minimal-kill shelters in North America.
Perhaps the most challenging issue with memoir is recalling incidents or experiences that would be unflattering or racist. Barb says she tries to observe political correctness “unless I’m using a direct quotation from one of my characters.” Gordon, a white man who lived in an interracial neighborhood during the tumultuous sixties, relates an incident with a black gang member with fairness and balance. One must be honest when dealing with these memories, but they can provide insight not only into how it was, but how it is now. “I don’t think one can write after-the-fact and still be ‘who she was at the time’,” said Barb. “As years pass, we realize past experiences in a different light.”
If this convinces you to write a memoir, Barb advises, “Above all, enjoy the writing process. Write to please yourself.” When you publish your story, consider all the places that might be interested in having a copy beyond your family and friends. Many libraries have local history collections, and historical societies or museums, schools, chambers of commerce, and even hospitals could be interested in adding your book to their collection or selling it in their gift shop. Did you have an unusual job or a career that overlapped a unique period of development or history? Does your story include the challenge of dealing with a physical or medical issue? A special child or animal? Any related organization with a website, newsletter, or annual conference/convention might consider carrying or at least advertising a book based on their mission statement.
Even if you’ve never written a book before, Gordon recommends beginning with your own story. “The memoir is ideal – you know the subject and creativity isn’t necessary…write for fun and if you become rich, share some green with me.”
On the other hand, Avis suggests a more creative approach. “Unless the author can be amusing, poke fun at one’s own self in their memoir, or has led an exemplarily interesting life, they would enjoy fictionalizing it.”
Two earlier posts, Dedication and Holiday Memories, are my first attempts at memoir, but may not be my last. One of Gordon’s comments really stuck with me. “Wouldn’t you like to have a book written by your great, great, great grandfather or grandmother? A book that tells what it was like and what he/she did at that time and location in history?” What a wonderful legacy to leave for your family, friends and community.
Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal in the Wind series as well as several short stories. Miko is currently working on the fourth Petal novel as well as a mystery set in a library. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
11 thoughts on “THE STORY OF YOU”
Miko, such an inspiring post, and packed full of great advice and instruction. I loved the three episodes you included. One thing I’ve noticed as a memoir ghostwriter is that questions trigger memories. One lady I wrote for said she couldn’t remember much but when she began answering specific questions she remembered so much more, especially when looking at photos. Listening to music, too, evokes the past. People with Alzheimers begin to talk again and respond when they hear music from their high school years. The concept is used in therapy. Again, Miko, great post. Thank you.
Thanks, Jill. Memoirists recommend giving yourself prompts to trigger memories. Questions that begin with: I remember…, The first time…, or The last time… are helpful. And yes, music, along with photographs, smells and other sensory touchstones work as well.
Everybody does have a story and if you can tell it well, even the silly parts or the heartbreaking ones, it is well worth writing. This post just might encourage a few to give it a try.
I hope so, GB. Our lives may be very different, but that’s part of what makes them so interesting to others, and the emotions our stories evoke are universal.
Excellent post, Miko, on such an interesting part of our “writing world.” Memoirs, I think, are a valuable addition to our written word story/history. The California Writer’s Club branch(high desert) I belong to has a special on going memoir project. Sadly, I haven’t been part of the project, but all the reports have been it’s been such a rewarding project for all. In case anyone wants to check it out…http://www.hdcwc.com/special-project—blakely-memoir.html
Thanks for sharing Gordon, Barb, and Avis’s memoir experiences and insights–really enjoyed hearing their thoughts. The memory part of your post is also very interesting in that I have a 99year old cousin, who talks about all the paths she can go down from the trigger of just one memory.
As someone who’s novel writing career sprang from a recalled story, I can attest to the value of memories of one’s life, or a life lived by another. The project you refer to is not unique, fortunately. My former library created an oral history project, where the ‘pioneers’ of the region could tell their stories and share their history. These reminiscences were recorded and then transcribed. Such an incredible gift to a community.
Like your Barb, my mother could make the most ordinary incident interesting. She’d have the family in stitches with her descriptions of the people in line at the store. She never wrote them down and I so wish I had—or, better yet, recorded them.
Being able to make the ordinary sound extraordinary truly is a gift, isn’t it? In Barb’s case it’s almost not necessary as she’s led a fascinating life. I hope this post inspires people to write down those stories, either their own or others’.
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Great post, Miko. I have a four-page, single-spaced typewritten copy of my grandfather’s “reminiscences” of his migration from Colorado to New Mexico in the late 1800’s, in which he describes, among other things, going downriver on a barge and encountering some Native Americans who had not long before been “on the warpath.” He was not an educated man, but the writing is eloquent and clear–and since he is long gone, I treasure that document.
I can understand why, Bonnie. What a gift you have, a glimpse into the past – your family history as well as the American West. Sometimes a thousand words are worth more than a picture.
Miko, I’m late to the party again, but I loved this post! So inspiring. I want to read Barb’s ‘French Lessons’ – having lived there, too. But what a great group of writers you have introduced us to. Our own lives – however simple – really are the best source for stories, just as we’ve been reading with your ‘Petal in the Wind’ stories. Thank you for that emotional journey.