On memoir: "As if I were a dead man in another world…."

Charles Darwin, 1816

Charles Darwin, 1816

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.



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6 responses to “On memoir: "As if I were a dead man in another world…."

  1. Marilyn

    I have just followed the link to Days Road Writers’ Workshops and found some very good information. I really enjoyed reading the conversation with the Maritime sisters Sheila and Elizabeth Yeomen who ware writing the story of their aunt’s adventures during WWII. Then my eye caught the name Lawrence Hill. The next book for our Book Club is his Book of Negroes. From there I found an interesting personal account of Olaudah Equiano, who was captured in Africa as a boy of 11 in 1789. You never know where these links will lead. I have spent a very interesting hour. Thank you.

  2. Tracy

    K, as always, brilliant writing. Waiting impatiently for the next post.
    I’ve been reading a book called The Greatest Day in History: How the Great War Really Ended, by Nicholas Best. I suppose it’s a memoir in a sense, but of many people both famous and not, telling where they were and how they felt during that last week of World War I. I find the stories of the ordinary man more compelling than those of the famous, perhaps because I’m more able to insert myself into those “ordinary” shoes and imagine.

    • kristendenhartog

      I am also pulled in by the ordinary. It’s interesting how in fiction we like to read about “ordinary people” as characters, but memoirs/biographies/autobiographies in large part are reserved for the mucky-mucks among us. And yet one of the things people love most about The Occupied Garden is that it is about a so-called ordinary family…..

  3. jim

    You’ve just added another book I’ll consider as a must read. Darwin, who I consider ‘my hero’ had a mind I’d love to get a glimpse of. Even the excerpt you quoted reveals the humility so evident in the better known writings of this great man!

    • kristendenhartog

      It is an excellent book. Though it has to be kept in mind while reading that he wrote it for his children, so likely glossed a few things over (as fathers will). I’m also reading Annie’s Box, by Randal Keynes, who is a great-great grandson of CD, and writes here about CD’s daughter who died at age 10. Very nicely done.

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