This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.
Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b
Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.
During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.
Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.
In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.
If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.
The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.
To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.
A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape. To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.
Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.
If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.
Recommended memoirs about parents by children
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.
More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin
Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.
Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.
Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.
Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.
Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.
Great article, Jerry, and a good plug for not waiting too long. As I have put together a few short memoirs for elderly friends and recently asked my mother-in-law about her childhood for a possible cooking memoir of her life, I have found “my” elders were surprised and happy to be asked about their early lives. Nobody ever asks about that!
Jerry, An excellent post that raises the question of whether we need to write our parents memoir before we write our own. I have been stuggling to do both simultaneously and found it difficult. I hope you don’t mind I have reposted this on my blog.
Jerry, I really appreciate your thoughts about finding our own stories through writing about our parents. The more I write , the more my parents “pop” into my scenes. I am finding that they are ” important characters in my own story.” After my father died last year ,I spent the next several months pouring out stories of my parents’ childhoods, their courtship and my childhood with them. I’m still trying to figure out how to weave it in, like Ruth, but I think that will come as I keep writing. Thanks for an excellent post!
Jerry–this is wonderful! It gives people more permission to color outside the lines–to imagine, muse, inhabit, and research the lives of their parents and still call it a memoir. Some confusion has existed because to write it, we may want to go inside their heads, or walk in their shoes. I think doing this is a way to feel more compassion for who they were/are, if we are piecing together a story we didn’t live ourselves. I want to quote some of your pithy lines too!
Great post, and it gives me even more permission to come back to some pieces I wrote where I went inside the mind and body–in my imagination of course–of my mother and grandmother. I left those pieces in the folder because they didn’t seem like real memoir. Because we are writing them, and using our imagination to create a story that can be healing and freeing, we are still the narrator/creator and can claim them. At NAMW this month we are going to talk about genre bending–which offers more flexibility and creativity for writers.
Woo Hoo! Thanks so much for your compliments and for your inspiration. That’s the magic of the memoir wave. Read memoirs and expand your world to include other people. Write your own memoir and expand your inner world to include other people too! And then visit with other memoir readers and writers and establish those bonds too. I never imagined that memoirs would turn out to be such a socially expansive system.
Linda Joy, I’m fascinated by extending out to the edges of the genre. Like every art, memoir writing conforms only to the rule to please the observer’s creative core. That gives every author the mandate to explore their own creative core as well.
Andrew Pham’s “Eaves of Heaven” alternates back and forth between two times. Jon Reiner’s “Man Who Couldn’t Eat” uses delirium to introduce his backstory. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight” and Tracy Seeley’s “Ruby Slippers” use their second half to expound on lessons learned. The list goes on and on.
An excellent topic and very well written. I sadly wish that I had known more of both my parents. My father died when I was 16 and I was too wrapped up in myself to ask my mother much of her life before she too passed away. If only….
Hi Danny. Yes, yes, yes. “Wrapped up in yourself” sums it up. But it’s not all your fault. Back then, parents did not make any effort to discover their own stories. Daniel Siegel, a prolific expert on the mind and the brain, claims that to help kids find their own wholeness, parents ought to develop their own healthy story-of-self. I’m hoping that in the memoir age, more parents will be able to develop and share their stories, and help their children grow up seeing life as a story.
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Jerry, this is such a great post. I’ve Tweeted a link to it. It’s so very important for us to realize that the clock is ticking. There’s no better time to start learning about our parents stories than today – right now. ~Karen
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In the time since this post was published in 2012, I have finished and published my mother’s memoir. “We Were Not Spoiled” took 5 years to write. I don’t think the book was particularly important to my mother, but it was to me. Essentially, it helped me to understand her—no, more, to appreciate her. There was this pre-history time—before I was born—that I had never understood. My sense of its chronology was jumbled as was the reasoning—and in some cases—the inevitability behind some of the decisions she made. Getting her to cooperate was something of a chore as she would constantly say, “Who’s going to want to know that?” But, she was not otherwise resistant, but her interest flagged quickly during visits so that I was constantly returning to the interview mode. I got to her 30th year and then time ran out. She became unable to recall enough to make interviewing a meaningful for info gathering. I produced a lovely 208-page book. Her reaction? “How in the world did you ever get enough material on my life to write 208 pages!” Well, I did get enough and I love “We Were Not Spoiled.”
Thanks for letting us know the story behind the memoir, Denis, including your sense that writing it helped you understand and appreciate her. I found myself frustrated that you had to stop at age 30, and then I realized how fortunate you were to have learned that much. Many of us (myself included) know hardly any details about our moms’ pre-history, so learning about her life up to the age 30 is actually a marvelous achievement. I am intrigued by this struggle with the argument that no one wants to know, when in fact, so many of us in the memoir age DO want to know. Congratulations! Best wishes, Jerry
Thank you for the insight and advice. You have concisely put to words some of my thoughts as I move forward.
Thank you for posting those memoir books. Do you have more recommendation for memoir books on mother?
BTW, Obama’s book title is :
“Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”
Thanks for your thanks and for catching an error in my post (now fixed).
As for more memoirs about mothers, I consider Linda Austin’s to be a sort of classic, in the way she did extensive interviewing and ghost writing I’m tryin to think of others and the ones that come to mind are both about growing up with a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with mother. There is Don’t Call me Mother by Linda Joy Myers about a mother who abandoned the author, and She’s Not Herself by Linda Appleman Shapiro, about growing up with a mother who suffered what used to be called nervous breakdowns. I recommend both books. I know of many memoirs that mention mothers, but for now at least can’t think of any that try to explain their mother’s lives the way Miranda Seymour’s Thrumpton Hall or Alexandra’s Styron’s Reading My Father attempts to explain their fathers.
I hope this helps.