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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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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Personal Historian

Before It’s Too Late!

personal history, personal historian, Leslie Lang, writer, Hawaii writer

Have you dreamed about recording a parent’s story? Or writing about the history of your family, and the path it took over the decades – now, while your grandparents can still tell you what they know? How about documenting the history of a company you built up from nothing, or recording the life of a long-beloved family home?

Lots of people consider such a project, but often don’t actually get around to doing it — either because they lack the time, and/or, very often, because they don’t have the know how or specific skills to pull it all together. And once someone is gone and it’s too late, there is often such a feeling of regret.

This is where a personal historian comes in.

Personal historians are storytellers, often (but not always) hired by a younger generation to capture, organize and preserve the stories of an older one. They are experts who know how to carry such a project to completion.

The Association of Personal Historians defines a personal history as:

…the story of a life, or stories from a life. It may be a memoir, a tribute, a life story, an autobiography, a biography, a video biography, or an oral history. It may also be a legacy letter or ethical will, expressing one’s values, wishes, regrets, observations about life, lessons learned, and so on. Many personal histories are books, a growing number are captured on video, and some are still simply audio.

Personal historians are creative professionals who help both celebrities and “ordinary people” tell their life stories. A personal historian may be engaged to help individuals, families, communities, or organizations preserve memories, images, voices, stories, and histories – often (but not always) in narrative form.

personal historian, personal history, Hawaii writerAs a personal historian, I use my many, many years of personal interviewing skills to sit down with someone and glean the story they have within them and want to preserve. They review everything, and then I put it all together in a professional, finished format.

Your stories and photos can end up as a high-quality, professionally designed book for your family or organization.

Another option is to put together a video project, using whatever combination of recorded audio, video clips, photos, musics, effects and narration work. The result is a polished multimedia project you can share by computer or disk, show at a celebration, memorial or other special get-together, and keep forever.

Why hire me, specifically? I have decades of experience working as an interviewer, writer, journalist, author, editor, cultural anthropologist and historian. I am a digital “junkie” who enjoys putting professional projects together on the computer. My friends say I am a Storyteller.

Please let me know if you have a project in mind and would like to discuss it.

And if you’re not ready to do your personal history yet, I’d like to encourage you to sign up for my quarterly newsletter. You’ll also get email notifications when I post here to the blog. It’s a way to get more comfortable with who I am, and the work I do, before jumping into a project of your own. (Do not be afraid! Girl Scout Promise: I will never abuse your email address, and I work hard to make my monthly newsletter interesting and worth reading.) 

Thanks for checking out my website, and I’d love to talk to you about a personal history project when you’re ready.

top photo © Mikle15 | Dreamstime.com  / middle photo © Karin Hildebrand
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