When we reach a certain age, often our children tell us it is time to write a memoir, a short history of our lives. Usually the family are happy even to pay for the printing for you. They know, as you do, it’s not likely to be of interest to anyone outside the family circle, and it doesn’t need to be a great work of literary merit, but it is to be valued and even cherished among your children and grandchildren. I am saddened that when my late father told me stories of Portuguese forebears a few generations ago that he had heard from his parents, I barely listened. Now I would love to know more about them, but there is no-one left to ask. Even if young people have little patience to listen to these old stories now, the time will come, as it did with me, when they will realise that these past generations helped to shape them and will hunger for all the information that is available.
Why does one write a memoir? There’s an old saying that to die without leaving a record is to die without an inheritance. Every Passover, throughout all the generations, Jews are instructed to tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Our personal memoir also tells the story of where we came from and how we got here … to this place in life, wherever it may be.
We read and write memoirs to find meaning in life, and as a kind of cry for immortality. The research begins with a paper chase, often difficult when those who know your history are no longer alive. You collect photos, anecdotes, records of births, deaths and marriages, anything that will shed light on your distant roots. A memoir is an impression of life, from which gradually a portrait emerges. It is a testimony of the life you have lived told in the most compelling, vivid and brave way. You should not only tell the events of your own life, but those taking place in the larger world around you that influenced your choices. Instincts and desires are also part of the equation.
It’s something like the old song: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” When we write a memoir, we attempt to put our lives in perspective. It takes perseverance to reach your goal of writing every day (if you’re really serious about finishing the job), but a dream is like a boat. To sail, you need some work and skill, but if you make the effort , your dream can eventually take you to a wonderful destination. There will be painful stops along the way, failures as well as triumphs, setbacks and achievements. Sometimes it’s not easy to admit to weakness, but everyone makes mistakes and your readers will empathise with your candour.
In your personal memoir, you will be able to examine who you are and where you sprang from. It will be necessary to choose a road between honesty and discretion, so as not to hurt those in the family who may still be alive. This record of a life lived will be a legacy that may help your descendants one day to charter their own journey through life.
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