History can only be written by those in the present utilizing the recorded records of those in the past. For thousands of years, from Herodotus in Greek times on, interested writers found records from the past, visited sites, domestic and foreign that might have historical interest, and wrote about them. They might or might not have valued exact accuracy.
Some of these records were individuals recording their own lives and observations, or taking down these memories for another. That’s a memoir, and these accounts have become the basis of a good deal of our history in times beyond the writer’s view. Journals or diaries have played a role in recording personal or state or business histories, but a memoir can add perspective, a window on the times as an individual perceived that particular time.
The scope can be one memorable time or event or a whole life. I think of Pliny the Younger’s view of his own experiencing of the last days of Pompeii. On the larger scale are Ulysses S. Grant’s remarkable memoirs of the Civil War and his own presidency, an invaluable source of history for future generations. Any “new book” library shelf will have the memoirs of celebrity politicians, photographers, statesmen, movie stars.
But most of us will who have an urge to tell our own stories have much humbler goals. And if we are considering sitting down at computer or writing the memories out in the old style on a tablet of lined paper, we need to be encouraged that two important goals will happen: (a) we will feel satisfaction in recording meaningful episodes from our own past to put our lives into perspective and (b) someone will want to read our recorded memories.
Clarification of our goals in any writing project is the important first step. Here’s what you should ask yourself:
- Why am I doing this? How will I receive satisfaction? What information beyond my own immediate experience is available to enrich the narrative?
- Who will read this? Family? Friends? My own home town or area or interest group? A larger audience? (You will need to have some substantial happenings in your life which are set on a slightly larger stage if that is to happen.)
- How will I organize my time and project and put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard)
- How can I write it so the readers can be caught up in my story and I can be satisfied that I’ve written the story well and in good form?
- Do I wish it published and in what form?
- How far am I willing to go to get this memoir around?
For this first piece in a memoir blog series, let’s focus briefly on Why am I doing this?
Usual reasons are: (a) to preserve family history before I depart for heritage purposes (b) to share a rich childhood or life in a certain area with others who care, now that times have changed a lot (c) to focus on a certain cultural pattern or local set of living customs that have important ramifications for larger history, for instance, if you grew up on a Native American reservation where a casino was being built, how did that change your culture and life for you? How might your experience affect thinking on Native American entrepreneurship in general?
We’ll further explore these considerations in a series of blogs and apply them to specific memoirs we’ve produced or been associated with at Hawthorne Publishing in our 30 years of existence in Indiana.
Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing