How to Write a Memoir – Great Tips from Willliam Zinsser

Image Credit and Article: American Scholar Magazine

I’ll summarize a few of the high spots of this excellent article, but I encourage everyone to read the full piece. In speaking about his own memoir writing, Zinsser says:

“One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.”

I certainly identify with what Zinsser has said. I actually began the process of collecting my parents’ stories 13 years ago, when my dad was alive. I sent my mother some questions in emails, and she did write her responses. Thank you, God. I wanted dad to play, too; but he did not. Had I gotten as far when my dad was alive as I have now, I would have parked myself in his face and demanded some answers. My dad is no longer here. I have recorded many of my mother’s memories; and I am at an absolute loss as to what I’ll say about my dad.

Don’t get me wrong. I have many generalizations about him; but I would like to hear my dad’s stories one more time–long enough for me to capture exactly how he would have offered his version of the facts. My mom and I talked today about some of my dad’s stories. Keep in mind, my dad was a natural story teller. All of us heard his stories repeatedly. While he was alive, we all thought that we had heard his stories too many times; yet, I could kick myself fnow or not having caught his exact words in print.

Zinsser continues: “Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into. That record can take many shapes. It can be a formal memoir—a careful act of literary construction. Or it can be an informal family history, written to tell your children and your grandchildren about the family they were born into. It can be the oral history that you extract by tape recorder from a parent or a grandparent too old or too sick to do any writing. Or it can be anything else you want it to be: some hybrid mixture of history and reminiscence. Whatever it is, it’s an important kind of writing. Too often memories die with their owner, and too often time surprises us by running out.”

Zinsser tells us that his father had written his family history or memoir. He did not do it to have it pubished. He merely recorded his memories, because he felt that they needed to be preserved. He gave each child a copy of his history, and he felt that his goal was accomplished.

“What my father did strikes me as a model for a family history that doesn’t aspire to be anything more; the idea of having it published wouldn’t have occurred to him. There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace. …

“Above all, there’s the matter of voice. Not being a writer, my father never worried about finding his “style.” He just wrote the way he talked, and now, when I read his sentences, I hear his personality and his humor, his idioms and his usages, many of them an echo of his college years in the early 1900s. I also hear his honesty. He wasn’t sentimental about blood ties, and I smile at his terse appraisals of Uncle X, “a second-rater,” or Cousin Y, who “never amounted to much.”

“When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a “writer.” It now occurs to me that my father, who didn’t try to be a writer, was a more natural writer than I am, with my constant fiddling and fussing. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.”

This is exactly the way that I feel about my mother’s writings. She just jotted a few answers for me–in some emails. She tells her bittersweet stories of childhood in the Depression, and she just tells them, as though she were sitting next to me. In my opinion, that will be the magic of our upcoming book: What My Mother Said. Take a look at a few of the chapters and judge for yourself.

In 2002, I asked my mother, who is currently almost 89-years-old, some questions.  For several years, I have hesitated to share any of what my mother said to me.  Even though my mother had an austere childhood during the Depression; and although for years, she essentially had no home–she has survived as a very proud person.

What My Mother Said is a series of posts that are mostly written, using my mother’s actual words.


4 thoughts on “How to Write a Memoir – Great Tips from Willliam Zinsser

  1. Zinsser wrote a book about writing that has been popularly used for a while, now. It might be called On Writing; Writing, at least, I’m pretty sure is in the title. Stephen King also wrote an acclaimed book about writing; Writing is in the title of that, too. What you cite of Zinsser here is compelling. I think writing someone else’s memoir is tough. But you’re doing it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Jacki Kellum

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