Books

New year resolution: Write one’s memoirs
The World of Books

How often do people involved with the book trade meet people parties, who say “I would love to write a book about my life, or even a novel, but I haven’t the time”.

Of course that is the difference between wanting to do something and doing it. Those that really want to do it, do it.

But what kind of time is really involved? There is the physical task of actually composing a book. Readers of books do not realise how big a book is. The average book is about 60,000 words – novels are often as little as 40,000. That sounds like a lot of words, and it is. A thousand words typed up runs to about three pages. A thousand words can be written out in about half an hour. So your book might take up something over 180 typed pages, say 200. At a thousand a day it would take 60 days to write, say 10 weeks.

But that is not how it works in reality. I am just pointing out that, with application and the rate of three pages a day, it takes no time at all.

The real problem is not the time, but the material. What do you put in your book? Well you will certainly need to do a little planning.

Let’s say what you want to write is a memoir of your life. Now no one will want to read every little tiny thing about you. You have to select, but what? Robert Graves in writing his famous autobiography Goodbye to All That to had no intention of telling everything. He recommends you make a list of all the famous people you have met. Then all the best dinners you ever had! 

After fame and food, other topics would follow. That sort of a list of things, people, places and events is certainly a good thing to make. But how do you lay it all out?

Think of it this way. According to the Church we reach the age of reason, the age when we can begin to sin, so to speak. So divide your life up in the sections of seven years: birth to first communion; first communion to 14 – the age at when many people began work – so that would be early education. The seven years for secondary school and college or first job, and so on. In, say, 12 sections you will soon have an outline of your life.

You see that some places, some people, some events were of greater importance than others. They’re the ones to write about.

But making a start can be a problem still, as many of the people at those parties will tell you. Here you could borrow a device from Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. When she defected to the West in 1967 she brought with her a volume of memoirs called Twenty Letters to a Friend. It was exactly that, a series of ‘letters’ or chapters on the course of her life written to a friend.

This device enabled her to imagine a reader for her book, a reader who was interested in her and whom she was eager to tell the truth to.

Imagine you are wring to a friend, or a child, or a grandchild or a relative; some specific person. This enables you to imagine the reception of what you say, allow you to realise the questions such a person might ask to gain more information or to understand properly. By making they understand you will come to understand yourself.  

You will see now that you will have already gone a very long way into the creation of your books, without writing a word. But how to start? Do you take the classic advice to begin at the beginning and go on to the end. Or take a hint from the earliest European work of literature, and begin, as Homer does the Iliad, in media res, in the middle of events, catching a reader’s attention at once. But Homer was not telling the whole history of the Trojan War – others did that – but only the tale of the anger of Achilles with Agamemnon; it is not a chronicle of the war, but an account of personal growth. And that surely is what any memoir, whoever by, should be about.