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September 3, 2017
Writing 101: Memoirs and Holidays
December 3, 2017
Holidays with family and friends can be the perfect time to observe people, retell family stories, and share (or at least compare) memories.
This, of course, means they are the perfect time of year to start writing down your history – either for your personal archives or to share with others.*
But, before you launch into your writing, you need to consider what kind of history you want to share. Are you going to be in it – possibly as the hero (or anti-hero) of your own story? Are you going to simply write down the family history as a sort of biographical exploration? Or are you going to use the family as a starting point and interpret it however you wish?
Yes, it’s possible that you might get a good start and then make your decisions as you find what bubbles to the surface, but you’ll still need to know which pieces of your history to pay attention to. Should you jot down tales of the ne’er-do-well uncle you’ve never met? Or would it be better to wax comedic about the game of Life that went horribly wrong when you were 12?
Then there’s also the debate over “truth.” After all, if you put two siblings in the same room and ask about the bike they fought over, you’ll probably get two very different stories.
All of these topics would probably fit under the very broad category of “Memoir,” which is obviously closely tied to the word “memory.”
So, before you begin, it might be good to consider what type of book you’ll say you’ve written when all is said and done and someone asks you about it. (If you’re really not sure, perhaps you should do a few trial pages/chapters/stories and hand them off to an editor – like me, for instance – for input and direction. Having the right writing partner can make all the difference in the world!)
Biography and autobiography fall on the “you need to research this and get the details as right as possible” end of the Memoir spectrum. Whether writing about someone else’s life (biography) or your own (autobiography), you need to make sure you’re sticking to the facts – and, yes, it’s usually most interesting if you tell the full story (both the good and bad). (Though, of course, you don’t have to – it’s your book, after all.) Yes, this sounds a lot like writing a history text – but “history” tends to look at broader aspects of a culture, while biography focuses its light on individuals.
Memoirs, as their own genre, tend to fall in the middle of the “capital-M Memoir” category. When compared to biographies and autobiographies, memoirs can be a little bit loose with specific details, though their intent is (in the hands of most authors) to tell a specific version of the truth – not a fiction.
Far from biography, on the other end of the Memoir spectrum, you’ll find things like “fictionalized memoir” or “historical fiction” or any number of labels that should alert readers that liberties have been taken with some of the “based on a true story” details. These could actually be novels with a historical figure at their center, or short stories and essays about your family that might not be entirely truthful because they were written for enjoyment, not education.
Oh. And if you want your friends and family to still be friends and family when you get done, you should take that into account as you begin, as well. The legal ramifications of writing about someone who didn’t want her/his story told can be just as painful as being hit with a lump of coal pulled from your Christmas stocking. Yes, you can “change names to protect the innocent,” but if you only have one sibling with red hair and your main character has one sibling with red hair… well… people just might figure out who you’re talking about. (And we all know that you never want to piss off a ginger…)
So, should you still work on your book about your family? That’s entirely up to you. (But, if you’ve been thinking about it at all, this would be a good time of year to at least start your research.)
Whether you move forward or not with it is kind of like deciding whether or not to go home for the Holidays – each of them might turn out to be amazing, or they could require large amounts of alcohol, and a few trips to therapy after the fact. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth it.
*Please be aware that a lot of memoirs get written by people who aren’t famous. Some of them are very interesting to read. Some of them aren’t. A certain amount of that falls to the author, but some does fall to the subject, as well.
Before you dive into any memoir writing – or any writing, really – be sure to decide what you want to get out of it. Will you be happy with a file folder of stories to pass down to your kids? Or do you somehow need it to be a best-seller? As in any writing endeavor your answer to those questions will determine whether or not you’ll eventually see the results as “successful.”