For a mish-mash of reasons, lately I’ve been reading Charles Darwin’s Autobiographies, which he never intended for public view, but rather for his family. It’s a slim little book, full of asides that give wonderful insight into his character — and also sage advice for writers of memoir. It begins:
A German editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children. I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather written by himself, and what he thought and did and how he worked. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.
When my sister and I were writing The Occupied Garden, we often used personal accounts and diaries in our research — but what we would have given to have found such a document within the family! We were very often frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know what had happened on a given, dramatic day, and it was SO tempting to make something up, as is allowed and expected in fiction. And we would often joke with each other, “Oh didn’t I tell you? I found Oma’s diary….” A little magic book that explained everything and contained the family’s deepest secrets.
Of course such books, when they do exist, are usually not terribly dramatic. That doesn’t make them less fascinating. Wrapped up in our familiar lives, we often forget that what is ordinary to us might be of great interest to our children and grandchildren and so on. Old letters and documents and autobiographical musings from one’s family can be just as mesmerizing as old photographs.
For some years, my mother has been working on her life story — not a book to put out into the world, but to leave behind for us. Of course it’s for her too, and I’m sure the process is immensely gratifying. I get the impression that she enjoys delving into her memory this way, and digging up what she can about the street she grew up on, the school she attended, and the time she chopped the heels off a pair of pumps to make fashionable flats, and to her dismay, the toes stuck up. I love the infinitesimal details, pragmatically recounted: how much it cost for a hair cut, and what route she and her siblings took when Great Uncle Ernie led their bike-riding excursions.
The internet is overflowing with how-to sites about memoir-writing, geared to the “non-writer” (whose work, while valuable on its own, can often be a gold-mine for the professional writer). In my opinion, excellent advice can be found at Days Road Writers’ Workshops.