I Remember It Well

telephoneMy parents told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better, remembered more. I wish I could ask if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago. Seven years ago my father died. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My mother now lives with a brain so fractured she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up, as well as through the stories other people tell about us. As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant, their lifestyle is recognized as archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, starting his first private practice in part of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and his office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone line on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family, the other for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I am the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father now gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family, the other for dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise I’d have my dad call as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technological intelligence than the space ship Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, chatting important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks picking up dry cleaning. Today they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping lists, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendars, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

As for me – I’m no longer the high tech envy of the kids at my school. I have an old fashioned flip phone, bought only because all pay phones were removed. It’ll be in my memoir someday.



Phone image courtesy Clip Art


Should we expect memoirs to be true?

Years ago, I watched the episode of Oprah where she interviewed James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, to discuss his memoir on overcoming drug addiction. I read the book and didn’t love it. But I sort of gave him a pass: not everyone who pens a memoir is a good writer.

Later, when it turned out that parts of the story were fictionalized, I watched the episode of Oprah where she raked him over the coals. I never really understood her anger.

First of all, I believe that every memoir is fiction to some degree. It’s subject to the faulty memory and bias of the writer. Add to that the fact that this writer struggled with demons- drug addiction being one, honesty being another. Did he exaggerate things to make himself look good? I don’t have a hard time imagining that.

If he made the whole thing up, that sucks. I can see how readers who were inspired in a “if he can do it, so can I” way would feel cheated. I wasn’t struggling with a similar issue so I just felt vindicated that the reason many parts of the book were unbelievable was that they never happened.

But one of the things Oprah was upset about was that he changed the method of a character’s suicide. In real life, she’d taken pills; in the book, she’d hung herself. That is the sort of change that preserves the meaning of the story, while obscuring identifying details for this real person and their family.

I think a memoir often blurs the line between what is literally true and what feels true. The question becomes: does a memoir writer owe the reader the absolute truth?

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed begins by assuring the reader that although she may change names and identifying details to preserve anonymity, she does not create composite characters or events. Lena Dunham says the opposite. She actually begins a chapter of Not That Kind of Girl by writing “I’m an unreliable narrator.” That didn’t save her from the controversy that chapter caused when the altered description of a character led to accusations that she had made the whole thing up.

I think these ethical questions about a writer’s obligation to be truthful are ramped up when they write about an event with historical significance, like war. Chris Kyle’s memoir has been used as the basis of the film American Sniper which is so full of misinformation about the Iraq War, many are calling it propaganda.

When reading a memoir, I expect that some of it is fiction. Who can reproduce a page of dialogue as it actually occurred? At what point is it the writer’s story and their right to express it in whatever way they choose and at what point do they have a duty to portray things as they happened? Where is the line? Where is it for you?

Is there value in maintaining a list of memorable memories?

While out taking a drive and sipping coffee this weekend my thoughts drifted to a writing-related topic I pursue now and again:  Should I maintain a list of memorable-memories of my life?

Just to be clear, I’m not speaking about self-debate whether to begin writing a memoir.  I’m simply speaking of a list of one-sentence bullet points that describe a particular memory, maybe grouped or tagged in some fashion.

As I rounded a soft-bend in the road past a golf course and two horse paddocks, I realized just how amazing the human brain really is when you compare it to modern internet-based search engines.  The lookups are fast, accurate, and extremely detailed, but any form of verbal or written output is painfully slow in comparison.

To me, the value in maintaining a list of memorable-memories is simply to generate content for writing exercises.  Each one of us has hundreds of stories worth telling from the thousands of memories we hold inside.  These memories shape who we are, who we were, and who we’re going to be.

I’m interested to know your thoughts on the topic.  Have you tried this approach?  Has it worked?  Have you stuck with it, or has it fallen by the wayside?

18 Tips for Memoir Authors

memoirI’ve been writing a series over on my ‘other’ writing blog about genres. So far I have:

Today, let’s talk about memoirs. What is a ‘memoir’. According to Google, a memoir is:

…a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. An essay on a learned subject.

A lot of people confuse ‘memoir’ with ‘autobiography’. Sure, they’re similar, but with big differences. According to Linton Weeks (“It’s the ‘Me’ that Makes a Memoir an Incomplete Tale”):

“A real autobiography traffics in facts: a memoir relies on memory.”

That’s the core of it: If you write an autobiography, you must be accurate. You can’t claim you took the plane to NYC when no such plane existed. Autobiographers must fact check. A ‘memoir’–that’s based on your memory. You rely on that imperfect nine pounds north of your shoulders for data. Everyone understands the story may or may not be accurate, but it’s as you remember it. ‘Facts’ are as you remember them, which may be at odds with reality. There is no apology for that and much value in it.

Another form of writing that memoirs are NOT is journaling. According to those who journal (which doesn’t include me), these chronicle a life where memoirs often focus on one event of note in that life.

Some famous memoirs–

  • Elie Wiesel’s Night (true stories of fellow concentration camp sufferers during the Holocaust)
  • Irene Spencer’s Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamists’s Wife

Do you get the trend here? As a reader, we are less concerned about historic accuracy than how the person starring in the memoir handled events. What is it like to live in a concentration camp? How could anyone agree to wed a polygamist?

If you decide to take up this writing genre, here are some tips to help you excel:

  1. Make sure the topic of your memoir is interesting. Most people’s lives aren’t. True, the writer’s skill can make it so, but what will inspire readers to pick up the tome? You need a hook–maybe you’re Octo Mom. Maybe you raised George Will. The theme must generate enough interest to make people turn the first page.
  2. Write in first person, from the author’s POV
  3. The unique voice of the person telling the story should be human, approachable, and not sound like a ‘writer’.
  4. Write narrative non-fiction, but in story form. This is similar to creative non-fiction which uses the characteristics of fiction to make nonfiction more interesting.
  5. NPR’s William Zinsser says memoir authors should “think small” (you don’t have to provide all the details) and make a series of “reducing decisions” (same idea). And–‘be yourself’, ‘think freely’.
  6. Memoirs can be written at any time in your life, about any corner of your world. It need not sum up your existence, just that event.
  7. According to literary agent Barbara Doyen, a memoir questions “what happened and come(s) to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way (s/)he sees the world. And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.”
  8. Sometimes memories are difficult to uncover. Heather Sellers, author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, suggests you just start writing. It’ll come.
  9. Don’t worry about gaps in the history. That doesn’t matter in a memoir. Just get to the next part that deals with your theme.
  10. Understand that when you write a memoir, you will hurt people. It can’t be avoided. They’ll disagree with your memory and that’ll upset them. Be prepared.
  11. Can you get sued for writing your memories? Maybe you’re writing about abuse and the perpetrator’s identity will surprise readers. Yes, there are topics and reasons that could generate a law suit. Consider what you’re writing, your purpose, before publishing. Consider consequences and if you’re willing to face them. Consider whether you’d prefer to hide real names and focus on the event.
  12. In memoirs, ’emotional truth’ is more important than ‘factual truth’. Understand the difference.
  13. For many people, the one book they have inside of them is a memoir.
  14. Readers don’t connect with whining. Be substantive.
  15. You are the protagonist in your memoir, what William Zinnser calls the ‘tour guide’.
  16. Be honest. Don’t sugar coat, don’t tweak. Represent your memories honestly, in the raw. See what comes out.
  17. Know how to tell a story. Don’t include the boring stuff readers will skip. Only include the meat.
  18. Pearlsong Press’s Linda Wisniewski suggests using props to jog your memories.

What do you suggest? What works best for you when writing a memoir?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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