We’ve said that a memoir needs honesty but also creativity. It should recapture memories of a life and let them live with vivid description and also create specific scenes which let us see, feel, hear and even smell the scene as you let us experience it.
My own long-time association in both reading and producing memoirs for publication is that the best ones do combine chronology, summary of events or happenings and vivid scene re-creation. Their scope can be a few days that were very important or a week or a month or months or a whole lifetime.
At this time we at Hawthorne are taking the opportunity to do our own memoir—of the president of the company. Art Baxter kept a diary in his sixteenth year in 1949—for just a couple of months. But what months they were! He attended meetings of his high school club, went to dances, failed his driver’s test and they took it so he could drive his new “Studie,” his Studebaker car, showed 16 millimeter movies in his basement to his friends, relished a new scientific device called a wire recorder, singing into the machine, finally got his driver’s license and—welcomed a new baby brother he hadn’t even mentioned before in his diary.
This memoir took the diary and using modern media recreated a segment of time in the life of a young man in 1949. None of this would have been possible a few years ago: pulling public domain photographs off the net and Wikipedia to show Art Baxter attending the Sonia Henie Ice Show, listening to the Lone Ranger, seeing a Robin Hood movie; visiting the league-winning Indianapolis Indians game. We see the church he attended, the state-of-the art new 1949 recording machine the dad brought in for the family, the state park where his boys’ club stayed and got into trouble with the locals by bumping a truck and fleeing—all of this can be illustrated to make a running, illustrated commentary on this diary. That is what we did in compiling and editing the memoir.
The new media, Wikipedia, and thousands of specific historic sites for reference and research are making backgrounding for memoirs easy. Facts about the setting and times are readily available by entering year and location. And the photos in historic sites enrich the story so that plenty of scenery for specific scenes in the memoir can come to visual life. But what about just taking a photo from Wikipedia or a specific website and featuring it in your memoir? Can we do that? A qualified yes is the answer. Wikipedia is a multi-hosting site and these historic photos can usually be utilized for a limited publication. If your memoir is being issued by a large press and concerns an important national happening or is about a celebrity or famous person, your situation will be quite different, handled by the publisher, who will be careful to get permissions and not violate copyright.
Most memoirs are meant for limited audiences, however: family, friends, a neighborhood or state. These are the types of literary reminiscences that can use electronic media without much fear of copyright infringement. Though it is true that some photo sites say, “This photo may be under copyright,” many photos, especially historic ones, have been widely distributed before, are not unique and cannot claim to be under copyright.
Recent photographs may clearly say that they must be purchased; a modest fee is due. In that case it is correct to pay the fee and use the photo with permission.
At any rate, there is a good deal more freedom for using photos and illustrations that aren’t for national publication.
And computers and photo scanning make entering memories easier than that process used to be. Just picture Boswell in the 18th century, sitting at a desk recording his memories of Samuel Johnson for the famous biography. He has a quill pen in hand, an inkwell on his desk (ink may spill over any minute onto his shoes) and Johnson’s huge dictionary by his side. Hours will pass for a few pages to be created.
We live in a great age for writing a memoir!
Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. Check out Nancy’s books by clicking back to the Hawthornepub.com website.