Memoir: Writing the past imperfect

Is your past perfect? Of course not, and that just means you’ve had a life. That’s the stuff some really good memoirs are made of. Even if we don’t have big stories of past troubles, we are not perfect, and it’s important in memoir not to make ourselves seem perfect. Perfect is unreal, unrelatable, and, frankly, uninteresting. While documenting life in a different time or place, don’t be afraid of telling stories on yourself—anecdotes, foibles, mischief, bad habits. Give yourself personality and color. Also, times change, so what might be frowned upon today may have been normal behavior or belief back then and good to capture for historical and cultural record – be sure to note that historical perspective though.

Maybe you’ve had a rough time. Overcoming, coming to terms, lessons learned. Rather than be embarrassed or ashamed, know that this type of memoir can help others who are going through the same or related struggles or are wanting to better understand someone who is. They can inspire, encourage, or build empathy for others. They can offer advice that might help someone else move through their dark time, or at least let them know they are not alone. If you’re worried about what your family will think, maybe your journey is something they need to know to better understand you. Maybe your kids will feel they can confide in you about their own troubles because you’ve been through some bad times, too—you would understand.

If you’re in the middle of rough times, your story isn’t done, but try journaling. Writing can be a release for emotions, a way to think, to clear your head, to take notes to eventually write that memoir and maybe help others. A lot of poignantly beautiful poetry comes out of pain. Read someone else’s story of going through a similar bad time and hopefully be encouraged. Troubles are our challenges, our learning experiences, our humanity. A good memoir shows our humanity.


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D-Day and More: Keeping the Memories Alive

The 75th anniversary of D-Day brings up an important point: with the survivors of this heroic but tragic history disappearing every day, who will be left to tell their stories? The history books will give basic information, but it’s the personal stories that give life in blood-red color as to what really happened. The stories are what give us pause—to be astonished, horrified, angry, but also to be inspired by strength, persistence, and courage. They show us the best – and worst – of humanity. Stories are more interesting than timelines and strategy and they teach us lessons and an appreciation for what others sacrificed for us. They make an impression and stick in our minds. In history classes, teachers would do well to require students to read memoirs, to drive home the reality and effects of what they are studying.

I hope you are writing the stories of your own family members—or even yourself. This honors those who have lived—or died—through difficult times, or even just through interesting times. These are your people, so if you don’t write who they were and what they lived through, in a couple generations it will be as though they never existed—just a name, perhaps with rumors attached. Worse, as for the Holocaust, once the survivors are gone from this earth, then the deniers can more easily run rampant, trying to change history, losing any lessons learned while desecrating the lives lost. Perhaps you’ve heard that saying that when a person dies, a library is lost. And that a person dies twice: once in physical death, and again when his stories are no longer remembered.

Normandy American Cemetery

Normandy American Cemetery


Remembering D-Day and Memorial Day

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Memoir: Your Journey, an Inheritance

Now what? Last week I attended our county library’s author event with Dani Shapiro, whose latest book is Inheritance: A memoir of genealogy, paternity, and love. The room was packed, all to hear her fascinating story of shocking discovery through DNA testing, and how that affected her concept of who she was. Dani is a blonde, raised by dark-haired Jewish parents and steeped in Jewish traditions. Yes, now what?

Dani Shapiro’s story is a whole ‘nother perspective from that of adoptees who feel a deep need to find their biological parents, to help them make sense of themselves by where they came from and what happened (and to know their medical histories). What if your father was a sperm donor, as Dani discovered hers was? (No one has mentioned the issue of egg donors yet.) These donors were promised anonymity, as were parents who gave their children up for adoption, but for them there likely will never be an “opt in” box to check if they want to know who they fathered. And now there is that DNA testing by, 23andMe, and other companies that will reveal the unknown, and secrets that possibly may ruin lives if told.

What if you discover, like a Chicago woman in the news today, that you have 15 half siblings thanks to your sperm donor father? Do you expect to have relationships with relatives whose only connection is having a father who did not want to know about them? Maybe they don’t even know and you will shock them. With DNA testing, even if you did not submit a test yourself, you can be found, like it or not, if any of your relatives have done the testing. Crime labs are using these genetic databases to solve murders sometimes decades old (recently, Myoung Hwa Cho and son Robert Whitt). Dani found her biological father within 36 hours, with some help from social media, too.

Dani’s memoir promises to be a fascinating one. She already was a memoir writer, and suddenly she had a really good reason to write another. Despite all her memoirs, Dani said she doesn’t have a good memory! But, some experiences she remembers with sharp clarity, like when her mother casually mentioning to a stranger that Dani was conceived in a Philadelphia institute. Dani had her life narrative crushed, and she had to analyze it and make adjustments. Her advice to other memoir writers:

“Don’t write what happened. Write the journey.”


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