Humor is Hard
End of Oct 1 Column

Memoir Ideas

I turned 60 last week, and my daughters bought me six hours of memoir-writing lessons as a gift. The gift was not actually a surprise, and I haven't scheduled my sessions yet, but I have started gathering string by listening to reviews of memoirs and memoir writers on the podcasts I listen to. I have heard a couple of ideas I like as organizing principles. I already know, because my older daughter has taken a course in the subject, that memoirs differ from autobiography in that they are stories, rather than a recitation of facts. I thought I had written several memoirs; turns out I have written several autobiographies--and printed up a half dozen copies of each.

When my daughters first mentioned this a few months ago, I thought I'd write the memoir about my favorite subject, me. But of course any memoir I write, no matter what the subject, is about me in the end, since any memoir I write is about how I reacted to a situation, how I remember it, how it affected me. So now, I am thinking (subject to revision after talking to the teacher) or writing a memoir about my parents.

One idea: the word stories. In a sense this is a meta idea, since memoirs are stories, but in another it is a principle around which I can organize writing about my mother, since she was a story teller, a trait she passed on to me. Another idea: grudges. There are some very long-held grudges on both sides of my family, involving both family and outsiders.

Another comes from Alex Witchel of the New York Times, who was discussing her new memoir Gone. She used the phrase, "my mother lived for." Which made me think, and then conclude that my mother lived for taking care of children, and my father lived for being a driver with a commercial license (or he lived for his work). I am not sure what I live for (and I am not soliciting suggestions). My older daughter suggested "family." My mother-in-law lived for travel, my father-in-law for his work.

Finally, I heard a memoirist use four adjectives to describe his family. I am working on my list. This sounds like the old Time Magazine habit from the 30s and 40s, in which each person was described with three adjectives (balding, greedy, fast-talking). I have some ideas. I am looking for a one-word synonym for grudge holding.