When embarking on the exciting adventure of writing about yourself or your family, it helps to have as much information available as possible on hand for reference and to spark memories.
Keep a journal and be like a magpie gathering anecdotes; things told to you as you grew up, whatever history you remember, and involve your family in your research, if not the actual writing. Your family and friends are a treasure trove of resources for the telling of your life – from sourcing old photos to digging up childhood memories and incidents you may have long forgotten.
Ask questions, take notes and record
Create a list of questions and interview your family members and friends, this can dredge up long-forgotten memories, or show an entirely different perspective or context that you never knew. As Graeme Kinross-Smith says in his book Writer, A Working Guide for New Writers, ask about your birth, was it difficult, a problem pregnancy for your mother, was yours a home birth, a water birth?
Get as many details as possible to fill in the jigsaw. Were your parents well off, or dirt poor, from the country in which you now live, or from elsewhere? Describe your siblings, things you remember as you grew up. You can do it in a notebook first and leave space for each family member. Even though you might know quite a lot, you will discover gems for your story as people open up and talk about their lives. How did they cope with losses, or even gains? Maybe someone won the lottery, did it change them?
Take notes or use a voice recorder, either the one on your mobile phone or a cheap one from one of the electronics shops. Sit your mother/sister/aunt down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and ask her about her life. Don’t forget to turn the voice recorder on! But try to forget it’s on because when people realise they’re being recorded they can clam up. Do the same with any other close relatives and long-term family friends willing to spend the time to talk with you.
Use the Bookform questions as a starting point and ask your immediate family, uncles and aunts, then friends, or neighbours who were around when you were small what they remember from your childhood. Recruit people to keep a notebook for you and write things down when they think of them. Why not ask your grandchildren what they want to know about your own life? If you need help with computer skills then definitely ask your children or theirs for help!
If you or a family member has done the family genealogy you’re laughing. Plunge into it and devour as much as you can.
If you prefer to write in your own first language, go for it. Maybe you or your relatives would feel more comfortable writing in their own first language rather than English and another relative could translate.
But be careful if you show your family your work in progress. Criticism, even high praise at this stage can take away the magic of your creation and stop the creative flow. Wait until it’s done and you have the printed finished book in your hands.
Your family and friends can help you, but don’t let them hinder you from enjoying your writing and expressing yourself to the full. This is your project.
Despite the excitement and rewards of writing, you must be prepared for obstacles. When you involve your family, you must realise difficulties might arise. Things can become rather awkward if you write something some friend or family member doesn’t want you to write.
Problems occur when perhaps you remember something differently to what a sibling or friend remembers. You only need to think back to Christmases when all the family has gathered, and after a few drinks someone brings up something from the past. You can bet almost everyone has a different version of the incident. Why is this? It has to do with us as individuals; we sometimes hear and interpret things differently, and we store those memories as fact when sometimes they aren’t.
So, back to the other difficulties you might encounter as you research and write your memoir. There’s the privacy of others, stirring up old emotions and family pain, and as mentioned, unreliable memory. Sometimes it may be more diplomatic to write about the consequences or your feelings after an ‘event’, the event does not need to be articulated per se, writing about the after-math can infer what may of happened. Write around the edges using phrases such as ‘by my recollection’, or ‘through my eyes as a child I remember…’, or ‘In those days it was normal to …’. And so on.
Remember that even if you have talked to your family and enlisted their help, the story is yours to tell, and if you write what everyone wants you to write you cannot please them all. While you can try to be sensitive, perhaps you could just tell them to write their own memoir!
Reaping deep rewards
I’ve been at writing workshops where tears flowed when other writers told their stories; we laughed as well, and hugged, and found such wonderful support from the writer who ran the workshop that any family difficulties dissolved into thin air.