Monday, November 1, 2010


A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.
~Edward de Bono

Every man's memory is his private literature.
~Aldous Huxley

God gave us memories that we might have roses in December.
~J.M. Barrie, Courage, 1922

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.
~Austin O'Malley

Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.
~Pierce Harris, Atlanta Journal

HANK: Here's why I can't ever write a memoir. Because I can't even remember what happened this morning, let alone what happened during my formative years, or during my college years, or when I started as a TV reporter in 1975. I wish I had kept my first story--it was about an impending rate hike by Blue Cross, and all I remember is that I didn't understand the story AT ALL, and was terrified about how to write a two-minute TV report with video about something I didn't understand. Ah, la dee ah. Would that be good for a memoir? Hmm.

I know a lot of interesting stuff happened to me during my Washington DC years (Watergate, Hunter Thompson, Richard Avedon, Warren Beatty, senate hearings, insider meetings, Georgetown parties) but when I try to put my finger on it, well, the finger hits the memory mist. Would that be good in a memoir? Hmm.

Once I decided I would take a snapshot of every story I did, and keep a day today diary of what I covered and who was involved. Great idea, huh? My photo diary lasted ONE DAY. I had a photo of a Russian dissident (oh, why, can't I remember her name? You know it..). So much for that idea. And that would have been good fodder for a memoir. But I didn't do it.

Now I know from various unpleasantnesses and brouhahas in book world that sometimes it doesn't matter if you can't remember your real life, that making stuff up is just as interesting, if not more so. And that if you can get away with it, who cares. But as I learned at the recent South Carolina Writers Workshop (hi, all! It was fantastic) there are lots of people who are interested in writing their memoirs. And it's not always because they're old. It feels like some search for self-awareness?? Or maybe it's to share what we've learned, or wish we learned? Or maybe it's a desire to have some record that we existed?

HALLIE: My father published his memoir, my sister's fiction and nonfiction is ALL autobiographical (if you know what you're looking for) and every time I read another installment, I swear I must have lived in alternate universes. This first occurred to me years ago when I was having dinner with my sisters, talking about something (which of course I've forgotten) that happened when I was a kid and all three of them looked at me and said, nearly in unison, "That never happened," and then one of them added "And besides, you weren't there." I've given up trying to parse that one.

HANK: Ah, that's hilarious!

ROBERTA: First of all, I've been reading foodie memoirs to get ready for my new series. GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES by Ruth Reichl, BORN ROUND by Frank Bruni, and right now MY LIFE IN FRANCE by Julia Child. Very entertaining stuff...I can't wait to meet some of these folks at the Key West Literary Seminar in January. (Not Julia, she's, you know, dead.)

But I'm like you Hank, can't remember squat. And not that sure my life's all that fascinating anyway. My sister writes a lot of journals and has good material for several books. I'm just bad at chronicling day to day stuff. Maybe we're just meant to be fiction writers where the truth isn't crucial but all those memories filter in somewhere that suits the story?

RHYS: Hank, we're fiction writers. If we write a memoir, we make it up!!

Actually I really admire people who keep detailed journals. For several years I went out and bought a lovely new journal, then wrote "Weather gloomy," on January 1st and that was about it. I realized after a while that I am not the kind of person who likes to put down her feelings for others to read. And memoirs without feelings are just a bunch of facts. I could actually write quite a juicy one if I chose to--I knew plenty of famous people during the swinging sixties, dated a member of a rock band, sang with Al Stewart, as well as Simon and Garfunkel... but I wouldn't want to put any of it down on paper.

Hallie, it's interesting about false memories. I'm sure some of these childhood abuse cases only happened in the person's mind. I do remember my childhood painfully well, I suppose because I was alone so much. The girl who lived in the big house in the village and my father ran the factory and my mom was the school principal so the village kids kept their distance.

JAN: Confession: I kept a detailed journal from the time I was about 13 to about 30 years old. Unfortunately, it provides a lot of IRONCLAD evidence about what a twit I was as a teenager. But that helped me a lot in raising my own teenagers. Those teenagers really can't help it, they are just clueless.

As my good friend Barbara Shapiro -- who teaches a memoir class at Northeastern University - instructs, memoir is NOT autobiography. It's a unique filter of the events that shaped a life story. Hallie is right, no one remembers anything the same way. Which makes for bad court testimony and calls into question the concept of an ultimate justice -- but it makes for a whole lot of memoir.

I have some pretty interesting material for a memoir, but what stops me is the invasion of privacy into those lives that provided all the conflict for the story. Dealing with my mother during my early years was a memoir in itself, but even though she has passed away, I still am reluctant to use her life as material. And then, of course, my daughter would just KILL me.

HANK: Yes, there is the backlash situation! And just a thought, Jan, what if your daughter is keeping a diary about YOU?

(Come back Friday for a lot more on this from a real expert!)

But first: Do you read memoirs? (I can't wait to read Stephen Sondheim's new one. It's next on my to-buy list!)
Have you ever thought of writing a one? And ooh, what might be in it?

Coming this week on Jungle Red:

True Crime Tuesday--with an incredible story of an author who put herself in real danger.
Wednesday: Yay for debut authors!
Thursday: More danger--Kidnap and Ransom--and a thriller that's in memoriam.
Friday: A memoir expert tells how-to and why-to!
Saturday: A NYT bestseller has an intriguing question for you!


  1. My grandmother led an interesting life--orphaned young, married wealthy, owned a plantation in Cuba, divorced him when he lost all his money as a bad dairy farmer, took herself to New York where she climbed the ranks of corporate America to become personnel director for Lipton Tea in the 1950s, had dinner with Queen Elizabeth. She kept diaries for years, and what did she write about? The weather.

  2. I know what you mean, Hallie, about sisters with differing memories. Do we just think we grew up in the same house? (And all of us less than two years apart in age...)

    The first year I successfully kept a diary was the year I was 16. Lots of big stuff happened that year: first person on the moon, RFK killed, and so on. What did I write about? Boys. Slumber parties. Going to the beach. Hair. Grades (Telling diary I was SURE I was going to get a D in chemistry, then reporting an A...).

    I did write a book of memoirs the year I lived in Burkina Faso (titled, creatively, A Year in Ougadougou). It needs a lot of editing and reorg, though. I guess that's a "retirement project" - hahaha, like I'm ever going to be able to afford to retire.


  3. Oooh, I can't wait to read the Stephen Sondheim memoir. I'm such a fan. Interesting, he said in an interview on Public Radio that he did not reveal negative opinions about folks who are still alive because it can be so hurtful. And to what end? I agree. Am I the only one who read Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and wondered how she could write such revealing material about her ex, even if he was an SOB. Memoir is very tricky stuff.

  4. HOw about Barbara Walters, outing her own affair in AUDITION?? I thought that was--interesting. Controversial. She said it was because, as a reporter, it wouldn't be honest to leave it out.

    Sheila, that's amazing. Did she ever tell you about any of it?

  5. I did keep a jounal for awhile, actually, when I was in my 30s. Again, during a part of my lifet hat was pretty exciting,a nd lot of big changes. What di I wrte about? Men.

    But, actually, when I read it over, ten years later, it was pretty revealing. And I changed my behavior as a result.

    Edith, I bet your Burkina Faso memories would be fascinating..when you look over them now, does it seem like "you"?

  6. I lived in Ouga only 11 years ago, and while I haven't looked at the book in a while, it's probably still pretty current. Now if I'd kept a journal when I lived in Brazil for a year at age 17 (with a Brazilian family, not my own), that would be pretty different.

    As for the tricky part of memoir writing, one thing stuck with me from a book I read at the time about writing memoir: "Write the truth with love." Tell the real story, but with respect for the characters.


  7. Sheila,
    Your grandmother sounds like a Barbara Taylor Bradford epic!!

    She did all right with her stories......

    Hallie, I read Fear of Flying and didn't actually realize it was a memoir. But I was fairly young as I recall and was reading it just for the sex!

  8. You guys are hysterical! Rhys, you sang with SIMON AND GARFUNKLE?? You have to tell that story, at least here with us...

    Hank, very impressive that you would read your diary and then change your behavior...Jan, I think you should go ahead and write it, see what happens...on the other hand, as Hallie points out, very tricky.

    I'm finishing up Julia Child right now. She had quite a bit to say about her co-writers on MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. I wonder what they would have said about her!!

  9. I remember pretty much everything about my childhood and teenage years. It's the more recent stuff I'm likely to forget, like where I left my cell phone charger.

    Would I write a memoir? Probably not. Would I tell the truth? Not if it would hurt anyone still living.

  10. Yup, Becke, sometimes I walk downstairs in my offie and by the time I get to the bottom, I 've totally fogotten my goal. NO IDEA.

    I've decided to decide it's funny. And I generally remember in a minute. Usually after I go back UPstairs.

    OH! My capcha word is upers! Funny.

  11. I loved to read female memoirs and biographies before I hit my teens - maybe those juicy, daring women inspired my wild side?

    My pat answer whenever someone asks if I'll write about myself: No. My best stories cannot be told. And my memory is awful!

    That's why fiction is so much fun - take the truth, dress it up or down, give it a different name, put it in a scene and wait for the reaction.

  12. Hey Rochelle!! xo

    A wonderful comment on facebook today about his--he says--"Would we ever write about ourselves? What ELSE do we ever write about?"

    Very wise...

  13. Love that last comment! I've found that even writing in the POV of a male protag, it's still all about me.
    I think I'm hopeless. :)

  14. Yes,Rebbie, I thought so, too! (That was me writing,via JRW.)

    And it's such a fun and challenging stretch, then, when you realized that, to expand into writing not-you. Or at least--the not-you of you.

    You know what I mean.

  15. It was comforting to hear so many of you complain about your own memory. Yes, Hank, I've stood in front of an open refrigerator trying to find a dish towel! A younger me had a fantastic memory. I could remember for years phone numbers of friends after dialing it once. But soon after starting to write for the newspaper, my memory became that cobweb shroud and I didn't like it. My husband said my brain synapses were on overload. But thinking about why this might be common -- my other writer friends complain about it, too. Can it be because we all flush our memories because we write everyday? And even if not typing or scribbling, we are engaged in working that next writing out.