The working title of this memoir is now ‘The Inside Story – Memoirs of the Otago Microbiology Department”. Memoirs are a distinct genre of storytelling which have a list of principles that give the reader a sense of expectation and structure to the writing. A memoir is not an autobiography – it doesn’t cover an entire life.
A memoir is about a particular phase of a life, one with its own beginning, middle, and ending. A memoir is akin to fiction in its being a story; but it is a true story. Even though they are facts, memoirs have an element of design, a condensed version of real life, that should adhere to the same principles of great storytelling as fiction does.
There are several challenges associated with writing a memoir. Deciding how to cope with these challenges has been highlighted in a Bookbaby blog post and are summarised below.
1. Decide which span of time you are describing
What is the opening and what is the ending? This is the same as a novel; all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that brings about a resolution.
2. Decide whether you are sticking with pure fact, or whether you are going to embellish
Embellishment might only mean changing the names of those involved to protect privacy. Deeper changes might involve the omission of events, changes in the true chronology of events, or slight changes to help focus the story. Fiction has a similar balance – pure imagination is inspired by aspects of reality.
3. Decide how personal you are going to get
The whole purpose of writing your memoir might be to air out everything that happened. On the other hand, you might be willing to share certain aspects of your life, but not others. This applies to everyone in your memoir as well. While you might be willing to share details of events and actions that took place, the real people involved may not be, and you’ll have to deal with this. Fiction has a similar aspect in that each author includes personal experiences and a private world view into the work of fiction,
4. Decide the message of your memoir
What was the purpose of taking the time to write the memoir? How is this message specific to you but universal? How can others relate and what can they draw from it? This is where the power of personal narrative lies. This spirit of the memoir is the magic of the genre. Leave out the mundane details and focus on what makes this a story different from anyone else’s.
It’s easier to write a memoir when it’s far enough in the past that you have fully processed what happened and have gained perspective on the events.
There are several ‘Don’ts’
1. Don’t use the book to settle old grudges.
It would be most unusual if there weren’t any grievances given the interactions with a diverse group of people working together. I have tried to weave these into the rich tapestry of departmental life.
2. Don’t mention every single person in the department
Some people will be left out since they did not play a key role in my story, but they should not feel that they were unimportant to the life and functioning of the department.
3. Don’t mention every event in its chronological order
By telling the story about the people and the events there will be a certain amount of toing and froing in time as each person enters center stage, but the minutiae of the day-to-day departmental life will not be included.
4. Don’t fail to organize the story
There is an overall chronology to the story — following the flight of time’s arrow. Jotting down random memories may be spontaneous and freewheeling, but not conducive to maintaining the interest of the reader.
5. Don’t expect a bestseller when your memoir is really a departmental keepsake
At the end of the day, the book may only be of interest to the inner circle of people associated with the department. It is unlikely to be a best-seller and the best plan is to publish it as an ebook and have a print-on-demand version as an option.