WRITING YOUR MEMOIR
TINA KISIL, author of Footprints in the Paddy Fields, tells you why you should write your memoir
WHO WOULD WANT TO READ ABOUT ME? What’s there to write about? My life is so boring. What will Aunt Dorothea think? Won’t the truth hurt a lot of people?
Many people shy away from writing about themselves for such reasons. There are more than enough excuses to create a small mountain for not writing a memoir, if you asked me. So let me tell you why you should write your memoir.
1. A memoir leaves a piece of history for your family
If you’re like me, you’d have occasionally wondered about the lives of your grandparents or great-grandparents. Someday you’ll have grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will be wondering about you and a memoir is your legacy to them.
You don’t even need to have it published. You can write a memoir, illustrate it with photographs and drawings and make a few dozen copies for your extended family and friends.
2. A memoir gives your reader a glimpse of what your life was like
In a memoir, you write about a specific period of your life, not your whole life. That, incidentally, would be an autobiography and is usually written by (or ghostwritten for) well-known personages, the famous and the notorious.
Your memoir describes what your life was like during the period you’ve chosen to write about. You can write about anything. Stephen King wrote about how childhood events influenced him as a writer in On Writing; Louis Zamperini wrote about the war in Devils at My Heels; Gilbert Tuhabonye wrote about oppression and a country in turmoil in The Voice in My Heart; and (nearer to home) Lucy Lum described her difficult childhood in The Thorn of Lion City.
3. A memoir helps others learn from your experience
Writing about a horrendous experience you’ve suffered will help others avoid making your ‘mistakes’.
Jeannette Walls, who wrote about her dysfunctional family in The Glass Castle says, “Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying: This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.” In her memoir, she talks about the hardships she had gone through, so “somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.”
4. A memoir is therapeutic
As you write, you dig into your memory and you may unearth emotions too painful to deal with when they first occurred. When you examine them now, you have a chance to come to terms with the past and experience a sense of peace. You learn to understand yourself, and the people in your life, better.
When should you write your memoir? Some people wait until they are ‘ready’. Sometimes they let the years slip away until it’s too late. Sometimes, God forbid, they lose their memory, or their passion for everything and they just let the days roll by.
The late Frank McCourt was 66 when Angela’s Ashes was published; Jeannette Walls was 44, and Anne Frank, the author of The Diary of a Young Girl, was dead and gone before she turned 16.
Let me tell you one thing: age doesn’t matter. You can be as young as Miley Cyrus or as ancient as ... well, me. But it’s better to start writing sooner than later. You may not live to a hundred.
Another scary thought: you’d be hurting people’s feelings. It is understandable that you don’t want to portray your loved ones in a less than favourable light. So how truthful are you going to be? McCourt said: “You can’t write an effective memoir if you’re worried about family and friends looking over your shoulder. Even if the truth hurts, if it is truthful, then there’s no other way to present it.”
You can, of course, use pseudonyms for your relatives if you think the truth will hurt them. Still, you may not be able to satisfy everyone. Let me tell you about a celebrity who wrote unflatteringly about a man who had slighted her. The man read her memoir and with self-righteous indignation told the writer: “You could have at least written my real name!” See? Some people may want to be immortalised in your memoir.
“But I don’t know how to write,” you moan. So you learn. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: you learn to write by reading. There are no short cuts. No magic wands. But take comfort, the words are all there already, waiting to be plucked and strung into meaningful sentences. You don’t need a degree, either. Baby Halder was a housemaid who hadn’t finish elementary school when she wrote a gem of a memoir: A Life Less Ordinary.
Visit some websites. Jerry Waxler’s Memory Writers Network is excellent. Check out lifeofmine.com, too.
Your reward isn’t in getting published, or how many copies you have sold. Your reward is the sense of accomplishment you get when you’ve produced a priceless legacy for your children and grandchildren, something only you can produce.
Promise you’ll start writing today!
TINA KISIL was a loner in a brood of twelve. A misfit and amisunderstood child, her shyness often misconstrued as arrogance, she began observing people at a tender age and took refuge in the world of books. Forced to quit school at eighteen to help support her younger siblings through school, she was told by her mother to choose: be a nurse or a teacher. Since blood makes her faint, she chose the latter. After earning her teacher’s diploma, she dedicated the best thirty-five years of her life to her students. She now lives a quiet life in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, where she catches up on her reading and tries to charm her backyard into a garden. She still seeks refuge in the world of books. Footprints in the Paddy Fields is her first book.
Reproduced from the April-June 2010 issue of Quill magazine