Piecing Together the Memories

One reason to get your story down:

“It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.” 

― Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel based on the true story of Mamah Borthwick and her illicit love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Memoir, Biography, Author

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Writing & Reading Memoir

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am excited each morning to carry a good cup of coffee into my office, sit down at my desk and start working. I really enjoy being a freelance writer/ghostwriter of memoir and biography, and working with others to tell their tales so they aren’t lost.

Currently I am helping two people write memoirs, and writing a biography for a third client about his mom and her family’s history. Memoir writer Leslie LangIt’s a huge responsibility to take someone’s stories and make sure you are wrangling them down onto paper just right, while also correctly grasping the significance. I’m tired at the end of my work day, though it often may look as though I merely sit the whole time. I’m hard at work while sitting!

I really love it, though. Everyone I work with has such an extraordinarily different story, and it’s all fascinating. This work is a great match for me. Hearing people’s stories, figuring out how to tell them, and writing them well – I couldn’t enjoy it more.

Here are some resources if you’d like to read some more about the genre of memoir.

1. Do you know the website BrainPickings.org? If you don’t, you should, because what a great site. Here’s a good entry point:

The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013   From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.

by Maria Popova

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)…

2. My writing colleague Pat McNees,who is amazing, put together this great online resource called Memoir, biography and corporate history. Its subtitle says, Memoir or personal history, biography or autobiography, oral history or interview, corporate or organizational history — resources on various forms of life writing a/​k/​a life story writing. It is a truly amazing collection of linked reference materials you have to see to appreciate.

3. This New York Times review of Ben Yagoda’s book Memoir: A History, is fun to read. “He ambles past Holocaust memoirs, child abuse memoirs, sexual abuse memoirs, and incest, drug addiction, celebrity, spirituality, eating and parenting memoirs; pauses to contemplate the odd species of “investigative” memoir (written by or for someone who must supplement memory with research); notes with surprise the fake Holocaust memoir; and stops in amazement before the strangest hybrid of them all, O. J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” a memoir in the conditional mood.”

4. This person, a serious fan of the memoir, has put together a Pinterest page showing memoirs: I’ve read a memoir a week starting in October 2011,” she writes. “Many of them are listed here, plus other memoirs/biographies that I continue to read.”

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Memoir: Isabella Bird in the Sandwich Islands

When Isabella Bird was 19 years old, in Yorkshire, England in 1850, she had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine and the operation was “only partially successful.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s written that afterwards she suffered from insomnia and depression and her doctor recommended, as so many did in those days, that she travel. I wish I had a doctor like that. Though I’m sure Kaiser wouldn’t cover it.

Her father must have been a remarkable man, because four years after that operation, when she was 23 years old, he gave her 100 pounds and told her she was free to go wherever she wanted. Wow! Let’s recap: She was a woman in somewhat poor health in Victorian England who took off and traveled the world, apparently fearlessly.

Isabella Bird, Leslie Lang, Hawaii Writer

She traveled first to North America, and stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the U.S., writing letters home to her sister the whole time. Upon her return to England, she referred to those letters to write her first book, a work of travel writing and memoir called The Englishwoman in America. (The full text is online at that link.)

When her father died in 1858, she and her sister and mother moved to Edinburgh, which was her home for the rest of her life. She continued to travel, returning to North America three times and going once to the Mediterranean. Then, in 1872, she boarded a ship in San Francisco that was headed for New Zealand.

She decided to get off in Hawai‘i and she remained here in the islands for six months. I don’t think any visitor ever had a fuller six months in Hawai‘i than Isabella Bird. She learned to ride a horse astride, instead of sidesaddle like a proper English lady, and journeyed to the top of Mauna Loa. She did not travel like an invalid, that’s for sure. Travel seemed to agree with her.

Later, she wrote about her pleasure in “visiting remote regions which are known to few even of the residents, living among the natives, and otherwise seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases.” She recorded her great stay in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1875 (original title, The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs & volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands). Full text here.

Though her books are often categorized as travel writing, they are also memoirs. “A memoir,” says Gore Vidal, “is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. In a memoir it isn’t the end of the world if your memory tricks you and your dates are off by a week or a month as long as you honestly try to tell the truth” (Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995). Bird was a keen observer and we are the better for being able to read her memoirs, and get glimpses of the worlds she stepped into.

People live more happily than any that I have seen elsewhere.  It is very cheerful to live among people whose faces are not soured by the east wind, or wrinkled by the worrying effort to “keep up appearances,” which deceive nobody. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

My daughter and I went to look at Rainbow Falls yesterday, a beautiful waterfall in the Wailuku River that has a lot of Hawaiian traditions associated with it, and I always think of Isabella Bird there. She would be astounded to see it now. While the falls probably look about the same, here’s how we got there: we drove our small SUV  up Waianuenue Avenue, and then turned onto a well-paved, wide street that leads to the falls and then turned into its clear, open parking lot, which is large enough to easily accommodate the numerous tour buses that roll in and out of there every day. There are bathrooms there, too.

Here’s how Isabella Bird got to Rainbow Falls, which was then known as Anuenue Falls (did you know that Waianuenue Avenue is named for its wai anuenue [rainbow waters]?), in 1872. They were on horseback (my emphasis): “Miss Karpe, my travelling companion, is a lady of great energy, and adept in the art of travelling. Undismayed by three days of sea-sickness, and the prospect of the tremendous journey to the volcano to-morrow, she extemporised a ride to the Anuenue Falls on the Wailuku this afternoon, and I weakly accompanied her, a burly policeman being our guide. The track is only a scramble among rocks and holes, concealed by grass and ferns, and we had to cross a stream, full of great holes, several times. The Fall itself is very pretty, 110 feet in one descent, with a cavernous shrine behind the water, filled with ferns. There were large ferns all round the Fall, and a jungle of luxuriant tropical shrubs of many kinds.”

She traveled extensively after her stay in the Sandwich Islands, though she settled down in Edinburgh for awhile after her sister died of typhoid in 1880 and married her sister’s doctor. He died just five years after they married and then she took off traveling again, and writing memoirs of all her great adventures.

It is a strange life up here on the mountain side, but I like it, and never yearn after civilization. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

Her works (this list is from Wikipedia):

Her adventures included traveling alone on horseback from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, riding alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spending several months snowed in a cabin with two young men, and being wooed by a lonely outlaw (these stories are all from her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1879).

In Amritsar, India, she established a hospital named for her sister, the Henrietta Bird Hospital, and in Srinigar, the John Bishop Memorial Hospital, named for her late husband. In northern India, she met up with someone and traveled with him to Persia, crossing the desert in mid-winter and arriving in Tehran, it’s said, half-dead. From there, she led her own caravan through northern Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey. She did many, many other interesting things in her lifetime; these are only a few.

She was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society (1892). When she died in 1904, at 72, she was in Edinburgh packing her trunks for a trip back to China.

“There is also a dog, but he does not understand English.” – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago

I am so glad she was compelled to write as she traveled and explored, and then to publish. It’s as though she’s speaking to us from the past and telling us all about how it was for her then.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that many of the books above are available to read on Google Books for free, because they are out of copyright now. And many of them are free on Kindle – I feel a binge coming on, and I’m off to do some downloading. If only there were more reading hours in the day!

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Zinsser, Memoirs & ‘No Project Too Weird’

June 1, 2014

Today I’ve been reading William Zinsser. It started when I dragged out his book On Writing Well, the classic guide to writing nonfiction, to reread his chapter on Writing Family History and Memoir (the chapter is, generously, online at that link).

An excerpt from Zinsser’s chapter, which is at The American Scholar:

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

He’s a wonderful writer himself, and seems like such an interesting person, too. I looked him up on the Internet to read more about him and that rabbit hole led me to a page of his great essays at The American Scholar. I learned that, as of a year ago, he was 90, blind from glaucoma, and still enjoying his life.

From the New York Times in April 2013:

…A little more than a year ago his many friends and former students received a written invitation from Mr. Zinsser “to attend the next stage of my life.”

He explained that his old enemy, glaucoma, had caused a “further rapid decline in my already hazy vision,” forcing him to close his office and end his nearly 70-year career as a writer. But he was now making himself available as a teacher, mentor and coach from the apartment he shares with his wife of 59 years, Caroline Fraser Zinsser, 82, an educator, historian and his partner, he says, in all things.

To be more specific, he would be available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.

“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”

What a great “next act!”

Do you know how a memoir differs from an autobiography?  Both include a person’s memories about moments or events from their life, both are (supposed to be) factual, and both are told in the first person.

But an autobiography summarizes and tells the whole of a person’s life. It is the story of a life. A memoir has a narrower focus, and tells a story from a life. Author (and memoir writer) Gore Vidal describes the difference this way: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dated, facts double-checked.”Memoir, Leslie Lang,

Memoirs go way back. Julius Caesar wrote memoirs. Louis de Rouvroy, duke of Saint-Simon, who lived in France in the Middle Ages of 1675-1755, wrote them, as did others at the time. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is a memoir about two years of his experiences in that cabin he built near Walden Pond. The memoirs of the 20th and 21st centuries are numerous.

A couple years ago, a writer at Flavorwire went out on a limb and selected what she calls 10 of the Best Literary Memoirs of All Time. Here is an NPR article called 6 Memoirs Written With Heart. There are countless others. It would take a very long time to read all the interesting memoirs out there, but I’d love to try.

It’s such an incredible act to be trusted to help someone write his or her memoir. The number one most important, of course, is getting it just right. There is no place for laziness in writing, or “good enough.” Each angle, thought, sentence and word choice has to be just right, in a precise and exacting way, because otherwise you did not quite capture his or her truth. And by “not quite” capturing it, I mean you got it wrong. And that’s a big huge fail.

It’s a lot of work but very satisfying to help someone capture a story and get both the details and its meaning just right.

Zinsser also edited Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir, which has wonderful essays by memoir writers who describe the pleasures and problems of writing a memoir. The well-known authors contributing to this book include Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Frank McCourt, and I randomly left out a few others just as worthy of being mentioned. I recommend it.

Do you have a favorite memoir? I’d love to hear. Let us know in the comments.

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