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TO WRITE THE PAST: A Memoir Writer’s Companion
Musings on the Philosophical, Personal, and Artistic Questions faced by the Autobiographical Writer.
Why write a memoir?
Who am I to write a memoir?
Who should I be writing for?
Should I write about people I know?
Should I write something so personal?
What is the truth about my life?
How do I turn my life into an engaging story?
To Write the Past is a guide for those with a yen to record their lives. Like a sturdy companion, the book is designed to hearten and embolden those who pick it up to set their memories and musings on the page. Tucked within are eight essays that address the key and burning questions that ever-perplex the memoirist.
Seated at one’s desk trying to compose a memoir—I know, from students, other writers, and myself—one is assailed with dilemma after dilemma, conundrum after conundrum: Why write a memoir at all? Is it worth one’s while to spend hours and years sealed away writing about one’s life? Who am I to do such a thing? Isn’t this self-centered, narcissistic self-promotion at its worst? And, after all, who cares? If I do write about my life, who should I be writing for—and should I write about the people I know? Who should my audience be, and what might happen if I write about those I love—or don’t? And then, what might be the consequences for me of all this self-disclosure? Should I write something so personal? Should I reveal the intimate details of my life? And, for heaven’s sake, what on earth is the truth? Truth is multiple—and contradictory! And: which story, of the many, should I tell? How do I make the jumble of my life into a single story? And why oh why is the act of writing so trying…and, always the contrarian, rewarding? Should I keep on despite the obstacles? And what, in the end, makes a piece of writing about an ordinary or extraordinary life un-ordinary—something that others might want to read?
As soon as one question is quelled, one finds, while seated at one’s desk tackling the task of setting down one’s life, another arises to take its place. Endlessly, questions and doubts revolve in the memoir-attempter’s head, in a continuous loop.
In this little volume I set out some replies to the questions that plague the memoirist: answers I discovered as I wrote my own memoir about my childhood as the daughter of a spy—a life that needed sorting if ever one did. I offer my thoughts here, in eight essays, as an offering of companionship and solace as the reader takes on the writing of his or her life story. It is my hope that this little collection may put to rest, or at least quell for you the doubts you, as a memoir writer, have, so that you may tackle the important task of comprehending your life—and thus Life—with all the zest, and freedom, and play of sorrow and joy it deserves.