A social group I belong asked a while back if I’d offer a few tips about writing an autobiography. Who me? I’m more into making things up in fiction. Couldn’t think of a worse candidate for the job.
I have an elderly relative who loves to tell stories of his youthful escapades, over and over and over, infinitum. He’s not a bad story teller, and it isn’t the repetition that gets me. It’s an overwhelming fear that I will end up doing the same thing when I reach the golden years (or is it platinum, now that we’re all supposed to live thirty years on average after retirement?). Oh, and his epilogue after each tale, where he insists his life would make a great story. “I should write it”, he’d say. “My autobiography would make a great book.”
Cue in scene: Honey, it’s getting late.
I never considered writing an autobiography or memoir, as it’s hard to remember what I did yesterday, much less recall facts from half a century ago. As for my family, the maternal Scottish side was scribed in a wonderful book back in the fifties, and contains a rich heritage of familial connections, big business, and pedigree to the Revolutionary War. The German paternal side is less pedantic, but pieced together by caring relatives who held onto letters, birth certificates, faded photos, and immigration research about a boat called the Oceana out of Bremen in 1865 that brought my father’s ancestors to a small town in Wisconsin. Turns out my last name is an Ellis Island adapted version of a town in eastern Germany. I have a picture of it on my wall. Guess that made my ancestors – migrants.
I forget, though, real people who did real things are the seeds of characters I visualize, real places I’ve been the fabric of a story background. Readers tend to connect with the richness of real times gone by, even more so if it leaves an indelible, personal imprint. The least I could do is look into the process.
I’m going to guess most folks aren’t interested in the challenge of writing autobiographies (see definition below). I also made an assumption my social group wasn’t interested in writing a traditional memoir either.
What I sensed, was a desire to – write about life.
We all have moments we’d like to share with family and friends, maybe have a grander scheme of jotting points of family history for the young ones before leaving this life. But how do you start? Where do you start? More importantly, why do you want to do it?
A divorced father of three worried that his kids would grow up without knowing a bit about his half of the blood flowing in their veins. He decided to gather snippets of his family background, based on old letters he’d collected, yellowed newspaper clippings, and conversations he had with parents and elderly relatives.
First, I needed to define the difference of memoir and autobiography, often confused as one in the same. Marion Roach Smith, one of the better resources for memoir writing, says “An autobiography is a book-length depiction of one’s entire life. A memoir depicts a specific aspect of that life.” To me, autobiographies require accurate chronology, solid records, insist on stuffy points of reference, and take a tremendous of amount of time and research, which is why I’m glad someone has already done it for me. Take a snippet from life, like what President’s do when recalling the years spent in the White House, it’s a memoir.
Now that I think of it, I do a memoir of sorts through the annual Christmas letter. Okay, stop groaning, I know what you’re thinking. One of those epistles on fancy holiday-bordered paper that grandstand exotic places visited, junior winning the Noble Prize, and Mitzi the wonder pooch designated best in show at the Persnickety Golf Club. Believe me, when I first considered the process twenty years ago, I didn’t want it to sound anything like that.
Marion Roach’s blog advises memoir authors to follow the same principles used in writing fiction. Pay attention to voice (use your own). Show, don’t tell. Here is my description of my 18-month-old grandson from last year’s annual letter.
We’d completely forgotten about the joys of toddlerhood when grandson evolved to upright walking hominid two months shy of his first birthday in July. Normal sleep rhythm kicked in sometime after achieving bipedal ambulation, with frequent disruptions that followed no apparent pattern, other than his preferred wake-up protocol of pounding on the bedroom wall. He’s a stout fellow, guaranteed to make your spine bark for mercy. We received a nice holiday card from the makers of Advil. Stroller walks are a favorite, despite the kids vetoing my desire to wear a shirt vest stenciled with “Service Human”. All taken into account, my grandson is a happy child with an insatiable curiosity, gives awesome hugs, and has an infectious smile that will melt the polar ice cap. The kids can’t wait to hear him speak his first words. I can probably – wait a little longer.
Marion Roach cautions against the use of ’embellishments’ in writing memoirs, but since I’m not calling it a memoir, creative license is allowed. The annual letter recaps deeds and faux pas, with a touch of humor to express the fun and foibles of a real life experience. It’s about sharing a life.
Social media has certainly enhanced a person’s ability to share life. Facebook has brought me ever closer to family in distant locales, which in the past, was limited to fragments in written correspondence or the family grapevine. In my mind, though, social media is a momentary glimpse, and quickly forgotten.
So, back to what I sent to my social group, I provided the few tips mentioned above and a couple links to experts better schooled to advise them. I told them to have an honest conversation with themselves. What part or parts of your life do you want to transcribe to a written document? Start with the parts you know without having to research. Don’t like writing? Use that fancy smart-phone that comes with a voice recorder (and use that fireside, storytelling voice when recalling moments aboard the USS Enterprise, afraid for your life – the grandkids at your feet in bug-eyed wonder.) Set a goal. Don’t procrastinate, it won’t write itself. Humanize it. We all have a natural instinct to read about real people, not bullet-pointed regurgitation of facts. Marion Roach says ‘don’t tell me your dad was an alcoholic, show me the home-made still in the basement and the empty scotch bottles under the kitchen sink.’
Just – try not to sound like that guy who’s fish got away.
Remember that divorced father? Word has it he’s well into a written story with the information he’s gleaned. I think his kids are going to be thrilled when they read it.
“Still interested“, I asked the group. Start simple. See where it takes you. Let the people, places, and memories in your life come alive again. Don’t worry about big words, or cataloged references from the Library of Congress.
Start with, “I remember when …”
P.S. By the way, while researching for some tips on the subject, AncestryDNA, a part of Ancestry.com, pops up on every query. They want to enhance your family scrapbook (or confuse it) by getting you to spit in a tube for a genetic workup of where your roots really come from.
AncestryDNA has divided the human seed bank into 26 historical regions. Note the singular color in North and South America. Only Native Americans get to call it “home”. The rest of us are descended from a cornucopia of African, Asian, or European roots.
I might be the product of German/Scottish parents, but several millennia of human migration (or horny invaders) might find I have central Asian genes in the mix.
What a story that would make.