Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Memoirs and memories

Recent conversations with potential clients for personal memoirs have made me think a lot about who tells stories and what kinds of stories they tell.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new for me. Since first becoming interested several years ago in helping people to write their memoirs, I’ve devoted plenty of thought to questions about personal story-telling. But as we consider more and more potential projects, the questions become increasingly interesting.

For example, because much of our potential clientele comes from the senior demographic, where memory loss is sometimes an issue,we’ve been asked how we can write about someone’s life when his or her memory seems so spotty. That’s an easy one for us to answer: we can bring in family members and close personal friends of the subject to help jog his or her memory, retelling stories that the memoir subject has told many times in the past. 

Sometimes these stories help the memoir subject to remember related stories. Sometimes one family member will remember one anecdote and another family member will remember a related one, and soon we have a whole stream of stories flowing.

But just as often, family members who think their elderly relative will have trouble with a memoir project because of perceived memory loss is pleasantly surprised to find out that the subject can remember stories from the past just fine. This makes sense, actually: memory loss in seniors often relates more to short-term memory than long-term. As the typical joke goes, people who can’t remember where they left their car keys can still remember the name of their second grade teacher from 80 years ago. But this works to the advantage of us memoir writers. We don’t need to know where your car keys are; we need you to remember what matters to you from the past.

Questions also arise about what people may not choose to tell. Our answer is that we help people write memoirs, not autobiographies. They are free to include or leave out whatever they wish. Accuracy is certainly helpful, but comprehensiveness isn’t necessary. We encourage memoir subjects to tell the stories they choose to pass on and leave out the ones they would rather not have figure into an overall reflection on their lives.

What becomes more apparent to us every day is that not only does everyone have a story to tell – after all, that’s the basis of our memoir-writing business – but everyone also has someone who wants to hear their story. It may be a large and diverse audience; it may be just one person. It may be several decades of students or devotees of someone’s professional persona; it may be one spouse or one child. But we have yet to find anyone who can’t find a single ready ear eager to hear the story they can pass on, or a single ready pair of eyes to read the text, increasingly engrossed in the story of a person they thought they knew but about whom they may still have so much more to learn.

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