WRITING A MEMOIR • An Exercise in Vigilance and Awareness

On June 26, 2006, the Wall Street Journal ran the article Memoir vs. Memoir about the author Jeffrey Zaslow's parents and each of their experiences in writing a memoir. The subtitle of the article: Married almost 60 years, Harry and Naomi Zaslow each put their life stories on paper. But revisiting the past, as families are discovering, can be a wrenching experience.

The article highlights a renewed emphasis in recent years to get individuals, especially those who are older, to write their life histories, preserving them for future generations:

Older people these days are often encouraged to put their lives on paper. There's been a boom in adult-education classes on autobiographical writing. Web sites and software programs are proliferating to help people store their memories for posterity. And through advances in print-on-demand publishing, people can now have their lives bound into books without paying large fees.

But this writing exercise is not only for the readers. Research is uncovering psychological and even physical benefits for the writer. Zaslow, just having experienced the effects of his parents' written words, cautions, "Less talked about, however, are the risks: Memoirs can lead to misunderstandings in marriages, and friction within families. While writing, people need to be aware of the emotional land mines."

This, of course, is not to say we shouldn't write anything out of fear for how it might be read or misunderstood. Revisiting history, even our own, is an exercise in constraint and moderation. After all, what we remember or even how we remember it can be deceiving: Some people will remember a mostly positive childhood as challenging and difficult, all because they choose to focus on a few, sparse negative experiences. Others take the opposite tack, constructing a happy past even though it may have been incredibly difficult and rarely positive. The key when writing a history is to keep our memories in perspective and be aware of the feelings of others.

Imperfect Memory

Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Muller Bros. Moving and Storage (published in his essay collection Eight Little Piggies), revisits a stairwell on which, as a child, he would sit with his grandfather. He distinctly remembered a large stadium rising above them. Years later, as an adult, he went back to find the stairs. When he found them he was shocked that they were so different from his recollections. For one, there was no stadium, just an old storage building for the Muller Bros. Though the memory was strong and true in his mind, he realized some of the tricks our minds can play. He reflected:

Thus we are easily fooled on all fronts of both eye and mind: seeing, storing, and recalling. The eye tricks us badly enough; the mind is even more perverse. What remedy can we possibly suggest but constant humility, and eternal vigilance and scrutiny? Trust your memory as you would your poker buddy (one of my grandfather's mottos from the steps).

This illustrates pitfall number one in writing a memoir (or other history for that matter): our senses are not foolproof, and our minds are not steel traps. We can have experiences in our lives, but there's no guarantee our senses will record the experiences accurately. And then what our senses send to our brains (which may or may not tell the whole story) is then stored as memory for later retrieval in a quirky retrieval system. Don't get me wrong: our minds are incredible and powerful. We just need be aware of their foibles.

Men, Women, and History

In Zaslow's case, his father had written mostly of his youth and experiences in the war, not even mentioning his wife until near the end of the memoir. This highlights point number two in personal histories and memoirs: be sensitive to the feelings of those involved (even indirectly). The Zaslow experience caused marital strain: "Memoir-writing experts say this is common."

Paula Stahel notes:

Women focus memoirs on their relationships and families. Men focus on their careers or their military service. It doesn't mean a husband doesn't care about his family, or that his wife doesn't care about his war experiences. When people realize this, they can get over the hurt.

Zaslow's article goes on to note some memoir-writing companies that can help individuals piece together their pasts. Often, the companies interview and record those interested in writing a memoir and use their words to craft a book. JM Histories is in this boat, dedicated to preserving experiences that will be of value for the memoirist and for later generations. For example Memoir Press, out of New York City, conducts weekly interviews and then creates a bound book for between $10,000 and $80,000. Memoirs Inc., out of Minnesota, offers a similar service for fees starting at $3,000.

Your Memoir: Worth Writing

This article is not meant to discourage anyone from writing their history or starting a memoir: It is simply a reminder that our writings have an influence, positive and possibly negative. This article, however, can help to mitigate the negative. The bottom line: Be aware and vigilant, but enjoy the memoir-writing process.

Contact JM Histories for help in starting or finishing your memoir.



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About JM Histories

If you have questions about compiling and creating your history, or would like JM Histories to help you start yours today, call or send an email:

Jared Miller
(208) 529-4973