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Memoir: The polished and published kind depends on measured honesty

We at Hawthorne have put out many memoirs of well-known Hoosiers.

We’ve helped these people put together their memories and achievements and get them published: Lorene Burkhart, Lawrence (Bo) Connor of the Indianapolis Star; World’s Tallest Woman Sandy Allen; Congressman Andy Jacobs;  Scott Walker of Hughes Aircraft; and more.

Then there were relatives or others who wrote the memoirs of people usually no longer here: Senator William Jenner’s son writing his father’s life story; the daughter of Herb and Dee Sweet who began the first day camp in America, Acorn Camp; Kurt Vonnegut’s good friend Majie Failey who told the story of Kurt as a boy and teenager in Indianapolis. We let legendary philanthropist Gene Glick tell his own story and buffed it up for him. No editor could improve much on the Glickstory, told in rich and colorful style, of rags to riches in Indianapolis real estate and the subsequent giving to his city of Indianapolis.

These books are all available either as e-books from this website or on Amazon.

There would have been twenty or thirty other Hoosier memoirs done in our earlier incarnation as a company: Guild Press of Indiana. These personal stories have seemed worthy to us both as interesting reading of the lives of good and contributive people and also fulfilling our mission to help preserve the history of our state. There are no better ways of doing that than having leading citizens, and everyday people for that matter, describe in detail their own lives and set the personal stories against a background of the times.

That’s what makes a good memoir: detailed, vivid recollections of life set against a carefully reconstructed background of the times themselves.

The very best memoirs are the most honest. And yet, that can be a problem. Most people plunging into autobiography face inner challenges about the way they will tell the story: (1) how honest should I get? Will I offend those from my family? (2) Do I have their permission to talk about my experiences involving them? (3) Should I leave out unpleasant sides of what happened, show myself as an ungrateful child or spouse or parent by telling the real truth?

There are several answers to these questions and most of the details depend on the individual situation. Honesty is here, as always, the best policy. Most of us don’t have the courage to tell the truth bluntly and fully about our family, business or personal relationships. And yet, if they play upon the story in a vital way, that is just what needs honest storytelling.

The best memoir we ever published among the many is obviously a judgment call and I’ll take the opportunity to make that call. The story Marilyn Glick wrote of her own dramatically interesting life was a story told with remarkable candor and detailed examination of behavior both of herself and those of her circle.

The name of the book is Once Upon a Lifetime: Marilyn’s Story. It the tale of a child whose mother had died in childbirth and whose father had fled, abandoning baby Marilyn to a New York orphanage. When adopted, little Marilyn lived with a doting father and a distant, often troubled mother. The story continues after the father’s death as Marilyn and her widowed mother decided to settle in the home of the mother’s family, Indianapolis. Without bragging, Marilyn conveys how with an appealing personality she found friends and stability at Shortridge High School while yet dealing with her often carping and overly protective mother.

She found her “Prince Charming” in the young Eugene Glick, recently returned from World War II where he served in the army immediately following the Normandy invasion. Together they built the contracting business which he later grew with shrewdness and excellent management into one of the leading apartment building companies in the United States.

All of the history is treated with respect and detailed description when needed: background of Detroit in the 1930s, Jewish community life and custom in a different time from today, motherhood of four girls with an especially honest look at their interactions and personalities and the clashes those family squabbles sometimes engendered. The gathering of her outstanding glass art collection, now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art is interesting because it takes Marilyn into the larger world of the arts in America.

The result is an endearing and enlightening story which is truly the Cinderella tale she deeply believed her life story was. Of course, the point must be made that this is her version of the events and others connected to it would have their own versions. That’s the story of autobiography anyway.

No doubt a good deal of her story—what would be too much honesty—was left out, but her own selection of anecdotes and a skilled writing style, telling her own story, made the book outstanding.

Probably this book exemplifies the two most fundamental rules of doing a good memoir: measured and carefully selected honesty and skilled telling of stories with vivid details. Your book can achieve this also. Go for it!

 

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing. Nancy’s own books can be ordered by clicking back to the website.