Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
“The Writing of Memoirs”
February 27, 2018
“A memoir isn’t a summary of a life; it’s a window into a life.”
William Zinsser (1922-2015)
On Writing Well, 1976
Not long ago, I was asked to speak on the subject of memoir writing. I complied, but it was a little like asking President Trump to speak on diplomacy – inexperience did not affect a willingness to express opinions. Nevertheless, memoirs have always interested me. I enjoy reading them and have had two books published, which could loosely be described as memoirs – assuming one accepts my belief that everything we write exposes something about us. I believe everyone profits in writing memoirs.
As we age, the past is more with us. Old age summons memories of youth – a time when the future was filled with prospects of playing for the Yankees, skiing the Matterhorn, or living in a castle. We think of people, places and experiences that formed us – parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, home, school, college, sports, first jobs, marriage and children. We think of the role chance plays in our lives, mistakes we made, losses we endured and of victories and successes we had. Getting older makes us consider a time when we will no longer be here. How will we be remembered? What will be our legacy? Memoirs are one answer.
A memoir serves as a bridge, between the past we knew and the future we won’t. There is no better way for the young to understand the past than to learn from those who lived it. A reading of history provides facts and chronology, but memoirs provide the details that makes history live. They are, as Mr. Zinsser wrote in the rubric quoted above, the “window into a life.” They are not the magical door to C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia.” They make a past we have known become real to future generations. A memoir provides a sense of time and place. Two sentences in Donald Hall’s Essays Over Eighty say a lot in twenty-one words: “Even more, I loved the slow plod back to the barn. My grandfather told story after story with affection and humor.” Think what we learn about him, his grandfather, where he lived and their relationship in those two simple sentences! I began an essay, written ten years ago, titled “The Death of my Father, Some Forty Years On:” “Sitting at the dining room table is where I remember him best. In my mind’s eye my brother Frank is there; we are between the ages of ten and fourteen. Dishes have been cleared. One of us is sitting atop the wood stove, which heated the dining and living rooms, the warmest spot on cold winter days. It is our conversations that stay with me.”
Memoirs are a window into a life – a collection of anecdotes about people, events, ideas and reflections. Aggregated, they allow the reader to learn something of the author. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Barton Swaim wrote of the late Justice Antonin Scalia: “A memoirist needs to interrupt his chronicle with topical discussions or reflective diversions.” I thought of that sentiment, when I read in The Financial Times what Lucy Scholes wrote about the interplay between life and literature – a genre Joyce Carol Oates called “bibliomemoirs.” Ms. Oates refers to such books as “a sub-species of literature, combining criticism and biography, with the intimate confessional tone of autobiography.” But biographies based on books written are not memoirs. Books we have read, however, say a lot about us. I have written essays about books – those I enjoyed, those I learned from and those I collected. Write of a character that reminded you of someone you knew. Write of the books you loved as a child, of those which you kept as a reminder of long-ago days. Write of the look, smell and feel of books on your shelves. A sketch is better than a mural.
There is a temptation to fictionalize our lives. Our minds are molded to remember pleasurable moments and to erase bad ones. But, we do a disservice to ourselves if we leave out the challenges we encountered, the mistakes we made and the losses we suffered. A memoir should be honest, in the sense it portrays. Memories play tricks. We sometimes claim to remember events and people we could not have known, or we remember things differently, as we age. It must have been with humor that Gore Vidal titled his memoir Palimpsest. He wrote that a memoir “is not history. It is how we remember one’s own life.” The comedian Will Rogers once wrote, half-jokingly: “When you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad things you did well, that’s memoirs.” No, it isn’t. Memoirs are reminders of the difference between egoism and egotism – the first, a preoccupation with one’s self; the second, a narcissistic sense of conceit. A memoir demands the first but should shun the second.
As in all aspects of life, writers must pay attention to details. Writing is both creative and mechanical. In terms of the latter, focus on spelling, grammar and syntax. Heed E.B. White’s Rule 17 in Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Eliminate any that consume space, without relevance. Use Anglo-Saxon verbs, whose definitions are never in doubt. Be merciless with adjectives and adverbs. Use short words, sentences and paragraphs. Winston Churchill once wrote that writers should get straight to the point and aim for readers at the primary school level. Re-writing is as critical as writing. Does the essay say what you mean it to say? Will the reader be certain as to your meaning? Look for the errant comma, the misplaced word, or the statement that has not been verified. Avoid repeating words. How many words, sentences or paragraphs can be eliminated, because they detract from the point being made?
For whom are memoirs written? Unless one is famous, they are written for ourselves, our children and grandchildren and for those who love history. They aid in self-understanding. They provide descendants a glance of their heritage. And they help those who wish to understand that, while time changes venues, speech and dress, human nature remains the same.
Memoirs provide a worm’s eye view of the history of mankind, which sluices across time on a never-ending conveyor belt. We are part of that history. In that long history, our lives represent but a speck. We ride the conveyor belt for a brief period and then fall off. Knowing she is about to die, Charlotte (in E. B. White’s eponymous novel) speaks to Wilbur, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” A sad but true statement. But each life has meaning. It is a link, between people and between the past we know and a future we won’t. We know life goes on. In an essay titled “Another Birthday,” I wrote, “I…look out at the snow accumulating in the fields, sense the cold of the ground underneath, but derive comfort from the knowledge that beneath that frozen soil lives the promise of spring and the resurrection of life.” It is why we write. Consider how different ages think of the present. To people my age, the present is the future; to my children, the present is the present. But, to my grandchildren, the present is the past. For readers, memoirs enliven the past…for authors, they allow us to be the child we once were.