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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Memoirs

Recently I've been reading Clarence Thomas's memoir, "My Grandfather's Son." I'm not finished yet, but it is a fascinating read. A key attraction of memoirs lies in the opportunity to learn details about someone from their own perspective. Rarely does a Supreme Court Justice grant an interview or speak to the press, but in his memoir I get to read Justice Thomas's own telling of his life story. The bestseller list is awash in memoirs. A quick glance at Amazon.com shows that the memoirs of Steve Martin (the comic), Tony Dungy (the NFL coach) and Eric Clapton (the rocker) are all in the top 25 books.

Memoirs are a popular genre in publishing, particularly when a publisher can snag a celebrity, but it seems that we all have an impulse to write some sort of memoir. The word memoir comes to us from the French word for "memory" and as such a memoir promises the reader some personal memory of the subject. The synonym "autobiography," in contrast, carries a more impersonal feeling. This word from the Greek for "self-life-writing" sounds somewhat less inviting but just as authoritative.

Some memoirs are almost obligatory. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs at the end of his life, giving his side the story of the Civil War as well as his presidency. John Hay and John George Nicolay gave us a priceless record of Abraham Lincoln and their story is especially valuable for its intimate and personal connection with Lincoln. They authors explain in their introduction,

"We knew Mr. Lincoln intimately before his election to the Presidency. We came from Illinois to Washington with him, and remained at his side and in his service--separately or together--until the day of his death. We were the daily and nightly witnesses of the incidents, the anxieties, the fears, and the hopes which pervaded the Executive Mansion and the National
Capital. The President's correspondence, both official and private, passed through our hands; he gave us his full confidence."


Memoirs have enduring appeal when their subject is fascinating ("The Story of My Life"by Helen Keller) or they capture viscerally a bygone era (Laura Ingalls Wilder) or if the writing itself is compelling (Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood").

Others have a temporary attraction (will my grandchildren--or even my children--care to read Steve Martin tell of his life?) that fades with passing fame.

Of course, writing a memoir might be a universal impulse (consider the instant-memoir phenomenon of blogs) but following through requires patience, skill, and hard work. Few actually attempt it. Fifteen years ago after reading Dillard's "An American Childhood" my own childhood memories seemed irresistible and I attempted to capture them in prose. As it turned out, my enthusiasm waned after less than an hour. Crafting a readable version of somewhat standard experiences is far more difficult than it first appears, as this blog no doubt demonstrates!

I'm trying again, but this time not with my own memories. I recently embarked on the project of writing a memoir with an acquaintance of mine. She has a life story to tell that she hopes will be an inspiring cautionary tale. While her experiences do have their own appeal, it remains to be seen if I can help her tell them in a way that might capture the interest of readers. In the meantime, I'm reading memoirs like "My Grandfather's Son" with a decidedly different perspective.

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