writing one's memoirs

A revolution in publishing has made self-published books affordable and easy to produce.  Many writers interested to record their memoirs may wonder where to begin with this technology. I used the self-publishing arm of Amazon, www.createspace.com.

Here are some issues to address in the process:

  • Why do you want to write your memoirs?
  • For whom are you writing this book?
  • What will you include or omit?
  • Where do you start?

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 10.24.26 AMUnless you’re a public figure or an exceptionally talented writer, start with the premise that you’re unlikely to produce a best seller (There are exceptions of course, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, but he didn’t need to do-it-himself). It’s a lot of effort, but costs are modest, so you will probably break even through sales to friends. Know that most self-publishing requires you to promote the book. A listing on Amazon will not call attention to an unknown writer. Marketing a book is essential and harder work than writing it.

Who are your intended readers?  If it’s a matter of concern to your family, consider the suitability of what you reveal according to the age of your readers and whether you may cause offence.  This is not to say “leave out the juicy bits” or “make it bland,” but if your grandchildren are under age, warn the parents about an embargo until the children are older. Endeavor to be truthful but admit that it will only be your truth.

How much information will you reveal?  Some may be content to describe a divorce in detail.  Others will be more discrete.  These are matters you’ll address later in the process, at the editing stage. To begin with, let it all flow. You may be surprised how detailed your memory is when you start to write.

Where to begin?  If you have ever tried to record your life chronologically, starting at birth, you have probably abandoned the chore.  Here is a better way to address the task:  Choose any topic in your life story that you feel like addressing today and write two or three pages. File your pieces in a concertina file and rearrange them later. This was the advice I received from a lecturer in “Writing One’s Memoirs” at a Lifelong Learning Institute class.  It makes the task manageable and fun. Pick a theme such as “My earliest memory” or “My first day at school”, “Faith”, “Education”, “Coincidence” – and write about that one theme.  You’ll find that your mood today may dictate the topic you want to address, whether it’s nostalgic, funny or an opinion piece. The object is to write with enthusiasm.  Mark Twain was the first writer to suggest this approach. In addressing the topic “A traumatic experience” in the class, I captured an episode of my life which I’d been reluctant to revisit for over forty years, thus putting it to rest.

If you’re writing about a childhood experience, try to capture the scene through your child’s eye, writing in the present tense.  “Mom meets me at the school gate, looking pretty … ” has impact.

Half way through amassing eighty essays on which to base my book, I shared with a friend the idea of writing a dust jacket before one writes the book, which helps to shape its contents and identify parameters.  He replied “I know of several people whose autobiographies should consist of a dust-jacket only and blank pages in the middle.”

Thinking about dust jackets, I asked myself:  “Who am I writing my memoirs for?”  I’m writing them so they don’t all disappear when I die, because I had some interesting times, and so that my grandchildren and even great grandchildren will know who I was. I don’t even know the name of my father’s mother, who died before I was born.  She was always referred to as “your grandmother” and I regret that her name escapes me.  She deserves better.  In raising my father, she shaped who I am. As my father was born in 1898, nearly forty in 1937, I have many Victorian values.  The way your parents were raised has a powerful influence on who you become.  I wish my grandparents had left some memoirs.

Baron von Richtofen
Baron von Richtofen

When my father was in his sixties I urged him to write down the stories he told me throughout my childhood.  He was a natural raconteur and had done a lot in his life (Royal Flying Corps in France in WW1, eight years as a merchant seaman sailing around the world in the 1920s, and he had a mind that always went on enquiring).  I loved to hear his anecdote of the time a rickshaw runner took him down a dark alley near the docks where two men waited to rob him.  He pulled out his service revolver and they ran off, despite the fact that it wasn’t loaded.  He heard a musician playing a mandolin in Sorrento and bought the instrument, playing and singing “Home on the range” with me and “Chagrin d’amour” decades later. He talked about the time his fellow seaman spotted a barrel of whisky on the dock and pulled out the bung saying “Let’s have a drink,” and how my father fretted at the waste when the rest of the contents leaked into the water; about the elephant carving he bought in Rangoon (I have it still) from a man who whittled to finish it before the ship sailed.  He showed me a book of pictures of the aftermath of Versuvius’ eruption that captivated my young imagination, and described being on the airfield when the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was shot down in France.

He told seafaring stories and sang me foreign songs.   “Please write your stories down so that I don’t forget them when you’ve gone,” I begged him in my teens, but nary a one did he record. He died aged 67 and now the only fragments remaining are the ones I write about.

While editing my memoir Plate Spinner (a reference to juggling with plates and the clangers I dropped while raising five sons and being bipolar), my twelve grandchildren were all under 16. As they grow up in Australia, America and Europe I see them seldom and they know little of me beyond contact on Skype, visits at long intervals or through our monthly family newsletter.  Despite this, so much of my influence, values, heart and energies have gone into loving and shaping them, through their fathers. It’s not enough that my genes will persist, diluted, through their children and grandchildren. I want them to know me as I would wish to have known my grandmother; not just that I liked sewing, writing, cooking, sang in tune, spoke Spanish and French and had a big heart.  I want them to learn what fun I had traveling alone by train from London to Madrid at age twenty (without a word of Spanish, until I learned it in Spain) and how I embraced language, customs, music, mores and attitudes.  I hope they’ll consider how such an adventure might enrich their lives too.  I want them to know that I had a sense of humor and that I loved to teach and play with children; how seriously I take work, how I started a business at age 50; how satisfying it is to be creative; how one can adapt to life’s upheavals and overcome setbacks (they will all have them), given a positive attitude.  Why did two marriages end in divorce?  How did our family disperse globally from England? Why did Granny emigrate at 68? What shaped their fathers’ characters?  Where do their own values come from?

Surely they will enjoy reading about their fathers when they were small, and about themselves.  My seven year old grandson in Virginia said recently, “Granny, I am going to give you a French kiss.”  I flinched, until he put his hands on my shoulders, kissed me chastely on both cheeks and said, “That’s how people in France say Hallo.”

How will they have a clue if I don’t write to them, the unborn of the next generation or two?  Facing brain surgery two months ago I was sustained by the existence of Plate Spinner.  It helped me to contemplate imminent extinction with equanimity, knowing that I’d left a record and to some extent, could go on contributing.

I probably won’t live to see the current generation grow up and this is my way of being with them in mind when I’m in spirit.  It’s not just egoism, I hope.  It’s the desire to continue tending, loving and encouraging our young. So there are no blank pages in my book.  They are there for a purpose.

Photo from the National Archives.
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on Amazon.com.