Thursday, May 23, 2013

Immortality and the Memoir

JANICE:  Immortality. We all yearn for it, and one way to get it is by writing a memoir. As the saying goes, "Write yourself into existence." I decided to do just that.

I began by reading other people's memoirs. My favorite was Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills. She is also the author of Eagle of the Ninth, a historical novel of Roman Britain that I keep on my desk at all times for inspiration.

Next I read books on writing a memoir, and the one that set me on fire was The Autobiographer's Handbook, edited by Jennifer Traig with an introduction by Dave Eggers. His first book, a memoir titled  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He said, "You should write your story because you will someday die, and without your story on paper, most of it will be forgotten." The Handbook is like a panel discussion among expert memoirists on all the elements of writing an autobiography.

As with any creative project, the hardest part is beginning. But as Goethe said, "First you must begin and then the mind grows heated."

I think the best way to begin is not at the beginning but with a vivid memory of an event in your life. Write it down. Each day write a memory. Chronology doesn't matter, just write what comes to mind. Doing so will bring up more memories day after day. When you have emptied your memory bank, read through them and look for a theme to learn what your memoir is about. I found that my story was about searching for the life in me.

As I began to put the pieces of memories together, I felt the need to bring them alive with dialogue - not that I always remembered the exact words people spoke, but I remembered the event and the characters involved, and I invented dialogue. Suddenly the memory came alive, dragged out of the past.

William Faulkner said, "The past is not dead. It is not even past." And with a memoir as with historical fiction, the past becomes the present. It took me a year to put memories together, then another year to get the book published. Now the story of my life from birth to Tom is told in a bound hardcover book. It's not for sale anywhere. I made it for family and friends so that my story would not be forgotten.

Becoming Alive  is a prequel to Honeymoon Hobos, the story of our yearlong trip around the world. For more about this travel memoir, which is available to the public, see my 2011 blogs on September 1st and 23rd.

I intend to continue my life story in a third memoir while continuing to write children's books. So now, back to work!

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