“I find that the writing of a memoir has two functions. One is to pass on, as much as you’re willing to tell, the facts and deeds of your life to those who might be at all interested. The other function is to discover a truth about yourself that you never had either the time or the courage to face before. You will never investigate yourself as vehemently as you do when you put one word after another, one thought after another, one revelation after another, in the pages that make up your memoirs, and you will suddenly realize the person you are instead of the person you thought you were. To force memory is to open yourself up to that which you have chosen to forget. It’s your RASHŌMON. You begin to see all the different sides of your own story.” Neil Simon, The Play Goes On, A Memoir
Not too long ago a friend mentioned the wish to write a memoir. In the senior community in which I live there are several people working on their memoirs in a class called Personal Stories. I think this is fabulous. There are any number of reasons for writing a memoir and generally it's not about publication. It's about personal exploration and/or leaving a record behind for our children and grandchildren. Hence this post is for everyone, not just for pro writers or those with ambitions to be pro writers.
While searching for some material to share with my friend and my neighbors that might be helpful to them, I happened upon this feature by William Zinsser of On Writing Well fame in The American Scholar, Spring 2006. I think my friend and neighbors are not the only ones who would be interested, so here it is for you too:
One of the saddest sentences I know is "I wish I had asked my mother about that." Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?” MORE
- For the Record: Remembering Mom, a brief (about 1,000 words) memoir about my own mother, Zbaida, originally published by Connotation Press.
On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is not without problems. It does however have its virtues. Originally published in 1976, it was a book of the month club selection. In my youth, it was always recommended by English teachers along with The Elements of Style. I believe On Writing Well is now in its twelfth printing. I suggest it here because though you will write your memoir for family, you still want it to be a clear and engaging document. This is a book that can help with that ambition.
At the time of Zinsser's death in 2015, 1.5 million copies were sold. Newer editions are reworked to include contemporary concerns: technology, diverse cultures, and demographics. Very good indeed.