When I attended a writers’ retreat last August at Ghost Ranch with about 80 other writers, I was surprised to learn how many were writing memoirs. I always thought of memoirs as something you wrote as you neared the end of your life (like we can even guess when that will happen!). A woman I met there just finished the first draft of her memoir. I never asked her age but she doesn’t look like she’s hit her 40s yet. Still, she’s committed to paper a history of her life.
I’m ashamed to say I used to think memoirs self-indulgent (what makes your life so interesting, huh?). I’ve done a complete 180 on this. Every life is interesting! More importantly, if you think you’re going to remember all the juicy, painful, intoxicating moments of your life when you are on your deathbed, you are wrong. It takes work to remember the past, analyze it, sort out what happened and how you felt about it, as well as its significance in your life today.
The first novel I started more than a year ago (23 Conversations Before My Funeral), I called a work of fiction when in fact I used many experiences from my own life, only I expanded on them and called the character Audrey. She had children; I do not. She’s dying of cancer at 48. I’m not ill, nor am I 48. The point is that there are compelling, heart-wrenching, lesson-filled experiences in my past that make for interesting reading (or at least I think so).
Both my parents are dead, and buried with them are the many fascinating stories of their lives I will never know about. My dad was in WWII but speaking of his time in the war was taboo in my home. I knew his experiences were painful enough to lead to alcoholism and a very angry life. His younger brother, now almost 90, served in the Navy in WWII as well. My brother, Paul, visits this uncle every Sunday to have lunch. Recently I asked Paul to ask my uncle about details of his time in the war as well as my dad’s. It struck me that my uncle is nearing the end of his life — and he is the last one alive who can pass down the stories of my father’s life. I almost had a panic attack that he would die before my brother could ask him the questions!
Through my brother’s visit with him, I learned so much, including that my dad served aboard the USS San Francisco in the Battle of Guadalcanal. His ship was being blasted from all sides. Daddy was on the gun crew, the guy who put the powder charges into the big gun. The last guy in the "bucket brigade" tossing powder charges to the gun saw an enemy plane diving for them and at the last minute tossed the 50-pound charge *at* my father who, unaware, was knocked off the platform. The rest of the gun crew was killed in that battle, Daddy the sole survivor.
You don’t have to be a memoir writer or published author to capture your family’s history, including your own. The significance of knowing where we come from can’t be underestimated. Don’t wait until it’s too late to ask those you love about their lives.