Memories and Memoirs
My father has an interesting life story as well as an interesting family story. He recently approached me to write these two stories down, and I took him up on the offer. He understood that his story wasn’t unique, yet the people were. His goal was to get the details down for the family as a keepsake. I saw something bigger.
Growing up in a small town in the 1930’s and 40’s would make an interesting book in and of itself, were it not for the well-kept—and not-so-well-kept—secrets that abound in every family and every town. The question became how to present the story.
Memories can make a great foundation for any book. For example, you might recall an incident from your childhood where a neighbor boy steals your bike, and your father makes you retrieve it. I was about four, and that actually happened. So I made that part of one of the backstory for my character, Betsy Rollins, a feisty rancher woman in northern Colorado. The real incident happened far from its fictional setting, but that doesn’t matter—this is the kind of event that could happen anywhere.
Another memory I have yet to weave into a tale—perhaps I’ll bring it out in my current project—is of my father and my mother’s father eating cherries and spitting the pits against the side of our mobile home to see who can spit the furthest. That in itself is a treasure, but next I recall my mother’s mother coming to the door to chastise them. But when she turns away, she is smiling.
Did that really happen that way? I don’t know, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Memories can make wonderful fodder for stories, but when they are bolstered by facts and details written at the time, these memories take on a whole new authority—that of a memoir. And my father provided me with a box of contemporaneous and near-contemporaneous records. I have the cash books from his father’s general store with notations on the happenings of the day, including births, deaths, marriages, suicides, vacations, operations, and who came to visit. I also have letters written thirty or forty years after the fact that refer to some of the events mentioned in the cashbooks.
Structuring a memory-based memoir poses some problems that are not unique to stories, and include:
- Who is the story about? Figure out who your main characters are, and what you want the reader to know about them.
- Who is telling the story? I have decided that to get into the essence of the characters, his biological mother will tell her story, and he will tell his stories. Because he has two stories: the one of his growing up years, and the one of his reunion with his half-brothers and –sisters.
- Where to start? Memoirs have a pattern of starting when the character is born and going through, following a chronological order. I chose to start his birth mother’s story on the day after her mother is buried, a turning point in her life. I use flashbacks, then move forward in leaps and bounds, often skipping months or years. In my father’s story, I start where he learns that his sister is his mother. And in the third part, where he meets his biological father’s children, I go forward from their first meeting.
- How much truth? So much time has gone past that a completely accurate retelling of the story is impossible. Memories fade, people die, and the internet doesn’t have all the information. The best you can do is research the setting and the people, then go forward from there. Fill in the gaps so long as it’s possible the event might have happened. For example, since my grandfather owned a general store, and I have some inventory notations, I can mention various goods sold in the shop. However, he never went to France, and to say that he did, would be wrong. I could say he went ice skating on the harbor ice, because he probably did at some point in his life.
- What about if the truth hurts someone? I am writing this story using the real names of the people involved. I will likely change those names before I submit it anywhere, but for right now, it’s easier to keep the names straight by using their real names. I am writing this story to record a period of time in my family’s history—and in the town’s history—that shouldn’t be lost. My goal is to show these people in the best light possible, to show they can and did change for the better, even if they didn’t. But that’s the fiction part of the story. And I am sprinkling in enough fiction so that this is not a biography.
Memories told in a memoir style is simply another way to tell a story. You want the reader to say, “This could have happened just like that.” The reader understands that the way you string the story together is for the benefit of the story, not of the history. We are not striving to rewrite history with our memory stories; in fact, we keep the facts alive by dressing them in another suit of clothes.
Do you have an interesting story from your family that would make a good foundation for a book? Perhaps the story is simply a nugget and would be good for backstory, like my bicycle story. Or perhaps the history is deep and wide enough to propel an entire novel.