Monday, November 14, 2016

Continuing Education: Memoir Writing

One of the skills every family historian should develop is the ability to write about themselves and about their ancestors. Although talent cannot be taught, skills and craftsmanship can be developed. Classes in memoir writing are given in many communities at their senior centers—it is now “trending” to write your memoir. Once you are comfortable with writing about yourself, you can then begin to write about your other family members, using your research to weave stories about those your barely remember or those you never met. Your stories may persuade other family members to join you in searching for your ancestors and making their lives come alive for future generations.

What is a memoir? And how is it different from an autobiography or biography? According to most sources: A memoir is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private that took place in the author's life. The statements made in the work are understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of autobiography since the late 20th century, the genre is differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. Published memoirs have exploded in the last 10-15 years, and some have been accused of containing information about events that never took place. Many authors are using memoir writing to add fictional details to their life story that will make the published book more marketable. An autobiography is a self-written account of the life of a person. It tells the story of a life—the author’s life, while memoir tells a story from a life, such as events and turning points from the author's life.

A biography is written by a third person and is a detailed description or account of a person's life. It entails more than basic facts (education, work, relationships, and death). A biography also portrays a subject's experience of these events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae, a biography presents a subject's life story, highlighting various aspects of his or her life, including intimate details of experience, and may include an analysis of the subject's personality. Biographical works are usually non-fiction, but fiction can also be used to portray a person's life.

I recommend memoir writing and autobiography because it is important to document our own lives and leave our descendants with our own view of our lives. Otherwise, we are either reduced to just the facts (dates & events) or our children or grandchildren's impression of who we were. Often their memories of us are not written down and like most oral history it changes and becomes distorted over time. How often have you searched for information on an elusive ancestor only to discover the name you were given is incorrect and their place of birth or death is wrong? I know NOW that my grandmothers were more than just tiny women who gave birth to many children in the early 1900s: one was married at 15 and was noted for her laughter and a marriage that lasted over 50 years. My second grandmother had a career before her marriage at 25, divorced in her 40s and returned to the workforce to support her children as a single mother. She spent her spare time the final twenty years of her life teaching the Bible in Spanish and English. I wish they had left diaries or a packet of letters describing their activities. I wish I could have interviewed them. So, if we want our descendants to have a glimpse of the "real person" or even a "total picture" we should be writing about our own lives. Although you may believe your life to be so ordinary that there is nothing to write about, to your grandchildren and other family members and descendants, it will be a step into history. Just think, your personal memories of life growing up in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s will be treasured.

Copyright 2015 by Donie A. Nelson