Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Damn Near Impossible to Interview the Dead

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.


  1. Great blog. I forwarded to my parents to read, too.

  2. For the past two Christmases, I've given my parents each a journal and 52 questions about their lives. My dad has let me read his journals and it's been fascinating!

  3. Since I seem to be a lot like the woman you met at the retreat, I feel compelled to chime in (ha). In my case, the memoir is about a specific story - the love triangle between my father, my mother, and me, their only child - and how that's impacted everything I've done.

    I'm not famous, and I wasn't raised by wolves or imprisoned in a concentration camp, but I think my story is universal enough - yet different enough - that it's worth telling. So I'm with you, Mandy: We all have interesting stories. The trick is telling them in an artful, compelling way. That's what I'm working on.

    And you're absolutely right about collecting family history. It's so important, and it's especially crucial for those of us who feel disconnected from our roots. There's that panic that sets in when we see our older relatives dying and we understand the loss of history they hold, but it's worth it to document what we can.

    I'm starting a genealogical research project with my mother, and plan to travel to the Czech Republic, Germany, and Sweden in the next two years to do more research. (My dad's side of the family will be particularly difficult, since they're all gone and there's far less data on them, but I'll gather what I can.)

    I'm sure the research will make its way into my writing, whether that's another memoir or fiction. There's comfort in knowing it will become written history, either way.

  4. Mandy, I'm so glad you're blogging more regularly again! Your posts are always great. My "fiction" always has an element of memoir in it. In fact, after years of thinking I couldn't write fiction, my first short story sprang out of a memoir piece, where a different character emerged out of my tale as I was trying to tell it....go figure...But it was incredibly freeing.

  5. I am a memoir junkie!! I love to read them, and I'm constantly writing my own. I have always maintained that EVERYONE has a story to tell, and I would love to be the one to write it down! (That's the journalist in me coming out!)

    But, my dad has written his story about him and my mom, who passed away 5 years ago. I think that's wonderful, and he says it's only for me and my sibling's eyes. That's fine....and if that's the only reason anyone writes their story, that's good enough!!

    It's very true that much of my fiction comes from my life, and it can be interchangeable! I can take bits of my life and make a story, or I can be reminded of a part of my life as I write my fiction...and expand on it in my memoir. Wow!!

    Thanks for your blog!!