According to Seymour Rothman, newspaperman and author of YOUR MEMOIRS, COLLECTING THEM FOR FUN AND POSTERITY, “Memoirs are about you and life.” So is any form of writing, if you care about it. Many authors, especially in the past, kept diaries or detailed journals; recording events, the authors’ impressions, and any ideas for characters or plots sparked by those events.
But let’s take memoirs as a starting point, go through writing one’s life, and end with writing from life.
Memoirs are like autobiographies, but less formal. Autobiographies are expected to be very precise and verifiable. Memoirs are your memories: What you remember happening, what you remember thinking or now think about what happened, and what you learned from the event.
Rothman suggests beginning with five envelopes, labeled: Dates, History, Thoughts, Lessons, Miscellany.
DATES: Make lists of all the dates you remember. If a date sparks a memory, or a host of memories, write those memories down on separate pieces of paper and put them in the appropriate envelopes. If they would go just as well in one envelope as another, put them wherever you like; it’ll all come together in the end, anyway. Mr. Rothman suggests heading your date lists: Forebears, Birthdays, Residences, Education, Employment, and Good Times and Bad. I would add Deaths, Important personal events, and Important public events. The dates may be exact, or approximate, or you may remember events but not the dates. You can dig for the dates later; for now, just name the event. You may not have any usable memories connected with a date, but thinking about that date might free-associate into usable memories: (You may not remember anything special about any of your baby brother’s birthdays, but you may have many special memories about your baby brother.)
HISTORY: As far as family history goes, if you don’t have facts, put down clues. Clues were what led Alex Haley to the re-creation of his family’s history. Collect stories from relatives and friends and your own memory: Birthing stories, holiday stories, funeral stories, illness stories, accident stories, car stories, pet stories.
THOUGHTS: Your thoughts express your philosophy of life, your personality.
LESSONS: Ask yourself: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life? Why do you say that?
Thoughts and lessons are very close, sometimes intertwined. Don’t worry about that; again, it doesn’t matter what envelope you put it in, as long as you get it out of your head and into an envelope.
SOURCES: for locating, remembering, or dating events: The old family Bible, letters, scrapbooks, school yearbooks, diaries and journals, old city directories, genealogies, photos, newspaper clippings, business papers, report cards, documents, souvenirs and programs, school essays themes and dissertations, old “TV Guide”‘s, old magazines, old movies, favorite foods — a major source, ultimately the major source, is YOUR MEMORY.
Violet Windell told me that she began her autobiography in 1947 or 8, about three years after she had a nervous breakdown, in an attempt to answer the questions, “Why does my life work out this way? How did it all begin?” She wrote down her memories as they occurred, and later sorted them by time and related content. She says she came up with these memories alone, as she had always felt alone; it didn’t occur to her that anyone cared enough about her past to want to discuss it with her. Let it occur to you. Rothman says, “Talking about yourself opens your memory. Exchanging memories and experiences with others reminds you of things long forgotten.” This is true whether you’re talking to someone who’s known you all your life, or a stranger in the doctor’s waiting room.
When a conversation, or something you’re reading — anything — sparks a memory, hold onto it and make a note of it. You can expand it later.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: Collect your dates, actual or approximate, and match the events with them. This gives you an outline in chronological order. Match events to dates, lessons and thoughts to events. If you have lessons and thoughts left over, save them for something else, or put them at the end of your book under the heading of Random Ramblings, or Advice to the Young or something.
If you want to center your autobiography on one pivotal event or set of events, you may want to select only those events, thoughts, and lessons which had the most bearing on what you see as the heart of your story.
Begin by picking an imaginary reader for whom you are writing. What kind of image of yourself do you want to project? What message do you want the work to carry? What is this piece of writing for? Who is it for?
1) Start out with a Preface answering these questions: Who am I? Why am I writing this? When am I writing this? What is my current situation?
After this, you may structure your book however you like: ordered by date, ordered by subject, completely random, or centered on one Big Event.
For instance, let’s take Edith. She has had a major experience that she wants tell about, maybe for herself, maybe for her family, maybe for other people who are going through the same kind of experience. She might follow her preface with:
2) Family history
3) Memories leading to (what Rothman calls) the Big Event
4) The Big Event
5) Anti-climax and wrap-up.
Part 4 will, of course, be longer and more detailed than the others, and the length and detail of the others will depend on the length of the work as a whole. The finished book may be typed on bond paper, or handwritten and the pages put in a magnetic notebook, or printed and bound, or available electronically, or recorded for audio. It’s your story.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Start some of those envelopes. If nothing else, it might be fun!