Hey, folks, my memoir is all about me

It’s a vanity thing, right?

So many people are writing memoirs these days because they’re ready to tell the world “all about me.” Before they even graduate from college. I wonder what they plan to say. I see that some MFA programs are offering courses in memoir writing. How discouraging it is to think there are enough self-centered people to justify such vanity fair courses.

If even half of the derring-do fantasies I had before I graduated from college were true, I might have enough for a memoir, say, James Bond and Rocky and Dirty Harry rolled into one. Some people, for better or worse, have exploits, over-the-top trials and tribulations, feats of extreme bravery, and inexplicable miracles to write about. Okay, so the memoir may not be a vanity thing.

I’m still suspicious about the memoir writing fad. Yes, I know, we all have things to say, but that doesn’t mean all that will fit into a book that the public cares about. Well, maybe it’s a “seeking closure” thing, cheaper than or in addition to psychoanalysis. Yet, is there a viable market for that?

Memoirs make me think of people who are all talk but no action. They have plans, great plans, but nothing comes of them. Sure, one can write a memoir called I Always Missed The Bus, but will it sell? And is it vain to think that it would sell? Especially if the prospective memoir writer “hasn’t done enough” to even get into Wikipedia?

The wonderful people most of us know don’t need the validation of a memoir or a Wikipedia entry to keep being wonderful. Those who could write and sell a million copies of a memoir are often the last people willing to do it. Telling people “all about me” isn’t who they are.

Memoirs can be very inspiring, even educational or motivational. Call me cynical, but I don’t think we need everyone’s life story in print. “All about me” is really a turn-off kind of thing (at best).



Your story is waiting to be told

All you have to do is write it.

As I search for writing-related articles to post on my Facebook author’s page, I see a fair number about writing memoirs. More and more of these of late have suggested that so-called “everyday people” should be writing memoirs–not just the rich and famous, not just those who have lived through wondrous or horrifying experiences, and not just those whose lives have intertwined with widely known people.

If I may be so bold as to suggest: your story is the life you are living. You’ve had good luck and bad luck, made good decisions and bad decisions and learned a lot of things in the process. What changed you the most: the so-called “good” or the so-called “bad.” In fiction, “bad” is often more compelling than “good” whether it’s bad people doing bad things or good people fighting bad people.

Whatever we discover in this chaotic mix of “bad” and “good” is worth saving, if not for the world at large, but for our families and friends. It need not be a hardcover or a paperback or an e-book available on Amazon. Perhaps it’s a folder of printed out pages or a series of files on a flash drive. (I prefer the printout because twenty or thirty years from now, there might not be any hardware or software around than can read a flash drive.)

I have two granddaughters who are much too young to hear the story of my life. When they’re older, it might be interesting. Or, it might not. Maybe my story will found like ancient history to them and whether it does or doesn’t they might have fun reading it. One of my aunts lived to be over 100 years old. She told me stories about traveling across the country in a covered wagon from Iowa to Washington state. Her stories made history come alive and made my family’s past more vital.

I found my family stories to be interesting, and it never occurred to me that my parents and grandparents were sharing them with me out of a sense of vanity. Yet, many of us feel like we’re being vain when we try to write our stories whether we sound more like heroes or villains. Even when I was young and tried to keep a journal, I realized I couldn’t write it straight and that I was always writing it with a bias that made me look less screwed up than I was. So, I know it’s hard to get past that need to justify ourselves and just tell the story has it happened, warts and all.

Most of us don’t have Wikipedia entries our kids can Google in the future. If we live in a Walton’s-like environment in one big house, we can share a lot of stories over time. When families are scattered, this is harder to do. We used to write snail mail letters to each other, but that’s not part of today’s reality–and even when we did write them, we usually didn’t save them to read again twenty years later. My parents wrote an annual Christmas letter, a process that has become much maligned. Yet my copies of it remind me what I was doing at different ages. One joke about Christmas letters was that they told the good stuff and not the bad stuff. Which is not to say that when and if you write the story of your life, you have to disclose every embarrassing moment. Our memoirs need not be a “Mommie Dearest” kind of thing.

My younger brother has scanned in multiple family letters and documents and figured out our genealogy from my father’s earlier research and from sites like Ancestry.com. Personally, I find it tedious to read letters my mother wrote to her parents in the 1940s. If we write memoirs, perhaps we should summarize this kind of information rather than trying to include a minute-by-minute account of each day’s minutiae. Maybe less is more in some cases. Perhaps sketches of our teenage years are more likely to be read than doctoral dissertations with footnotes. <g>

Here’s a page on a memoir-oriented site that lists books that might be of help if you decide to take the plunge.





How well do you remember events of ten or twenty years ago?

“Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives.” ― Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia

I first read Portrait in Sepia when it was released in 2000. As I re-read it for the first time this past week, I thought “how ironic this is that this is a novel about memories and I’ve forgotten most of it.”

The storylines of books tend to run together for me because I read a book per week. However, Allende is one of my favorite authors so, logically, I ought to remember more of each novel’s details. Except for high energy action books, I tend to read novels closely; I don’t scan sections or skip descriptions or conversations to get to the so-called “good parts” (as some people call the pivotal scenes).

Several weeks ago, I re-read The House of Spirits, a novel I read in 1982 when  it came out and one other time before this year. Again, the details were so hazy it was almost like reading the story for the first time. I can understand why high school and college literature teachers tell us they re-read the books they teach every semester that they reach them.

Even though I forget so many details of novels, I discover new things every time I re-read them. So, in addition to the surprise at how much I’d forgotten, there’s the excitement of seeing a character or an even in a new way.

When people ask me about my childhood, obviously I know most of it. Or, maybe I don’t. If I can’t remember a book in any detail several years after reading it, how reliable is my memory about anything in my past or the country’s past? Sketchy, at best. Though family Christmas letters have long been mocked as falsified (or carefully told) versions of what a family did during every past year, the only way I could be sure when I did something thirty years ago was looking in a binder of old Christmas letters to see what year something happened.

Things get worse when I realize that after using fictionalized bits and pieces of things I saw or did in some of my own novels, I begin to see that the line between what I really did and what a character did in my novel has gotten a little blurry.

We’ve heard often that those who witness traffic accidents and other events are often unreliable. They think they have a clear picture of the event when, in fact, they don’t. They think their view of an event was like that of a stationary security camera. In  reality, they glanced away at noises, movements of other people, etc. What they didn’t see, they think they did see because the mind fills in the gaps with what it thinks probably happened. They don’t know they’ve done this, and experts say that a lie detector test won’t pinpoint discrepancies in their versions of events.

An article in the current “Writer’s Chronicle” deals with this issue for the authors of memoirs and historical novels. It’s called “The True Story? How to Deal with Evidential Gaps While Writing a Biography,” by Viola van de Sandt. What really happened during such gaps often comes down to circumstantial evidence. Sometimes, important events can only be sketched in and presumed through fragments of diaries, articles, letters, etc.

I have often wished I’d kept a diary, a cut-and-dried account of daily events. I tried multiple times, but could never stick with it. So I have a lot of gaps in my own personal history. As Allende’s protagonist in Portrait in Sepia said, “I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evenesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing.”

I assume my memory is faulty. It’s been proven to be that way many times. Who I am and what I think I saw of daily events is more of an approximation than anything else. If you have a foolproof method of keeping track of your past, I’d sure like to know how you do it.


My novels At Sea and Mountain Song are partially based on my own experiences. But I can’t promise you I know the fact from the fiction in them.


Write down your memories for your kids. . .

…but you better have something extraordinary to say if you want to convince me a published version of those memories will be a bestseller.

When I was a kid, I read books about explorers who kept journals about where they went and what they saw. Some of them happened to know how to draw and included illustrations showing where they went and what they saw.

memoirsecretsI was just an everyday kid going to school. Nothing unique there. In spite the fact most of the people who knew me at school would describe me as nondescript, I kept logs (I liked sea stories) and journals (because guys didn’t keep diaries with hideous phrases such as “Dear Diary, Jenny looked at me in between classes today like she wished we were alone in the dark”).

The thing is, I was already too much aware of the fact that writers’ journals and private papers often got published after they were dead and (hence) unable to stop greedy heirs from trying to make a buck off stuff that was supposed to be private. Practically speaking, what this meant was that I made myself look better in my journal entries than I was.

“How will this read in the future?” I asked. This kept my journals from being the cathartic process of self-discovery modern-day advocates of journaling claim is possible. You’ll heal. You’ll change your life. You’ll grow. Maybe so, but truth wasn’t for me.

Consequently, I saved the healing/growing process for my fiction where I tell a story about somebody else while including disguised secrets about myself that I would never dare write down in a journal. These days, everybody and his/her brother is writing a memoir, including people who’re still in high school. But why?

I can’t decide whether all these memoirs by “regular people” are a service to human kind or examples of arrogance run amok.

Maybe some day my kids and your kids will be interested in some of our best true stories about life in an era that will seem very foreign to them by the time they’re reaching middle age. Maybe they’ll want to know about their family and where there ancestors came from and what it was like to live during those dark ages times when telephones were attached to the wall with a cord and didn’t show movies.

But, should you publish those memories as a book? I have no answer to this because–being 37.5% psychic–I know that the moment I say that we shouldn’t, people will come up with a hundred examples of “regular people’s” memoirs that had a great impact on the world. That can happen.

I do like the idea of continuity, the kinds of things we read about in oral history projects that give folks in later generations a sense of what life was like for people in their parents and grandparents generations. Perhaps we can provide that kind of information for our kids. Maybe they’ll never read it. We may never know.

My folks used to send a Christmas letter out every year. Years later, my brothers and I would actually find ourselves referring to these old letters because we could no longer remember what year we saw Niagara falls or when our father received an award. If I’d kept a journal, I would know all this.

If I did know it, I find it hard to imagine that thousands of people would race to the bookstore to buy even a well-edited version of that journal, along with a snappy title and a jaw-dropping cover.

An author’s fiction already contains enough secrets in it than he dares disclose any other way.


VisitingAuntRubyCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” and Kindle short story that he’ll swear on a stack of Bibles didn’t happen in “real life.”



Writers: How Tall Are You?

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?

– T. S. Eliot

In his article in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine called “Project Empathy,” Lee Martin advises those writing memoirs to keep in mind that the words on the page will never be as real as the lives we have lived.

poetswriterscover“We have to accept that fact and then forget it, so our subject matter won’t overwhelm us.” He goes on to suggest additional ways writers can approach difficult material…getting at emotionally charged issues through small details…letting the story tell itself without trying to say everything we feel about the horror of it or the joy of it.

In response to the quotation from Eliot, he says that “We should all feel as if we’re in over our heads when we write; that’s how we know we’re writing about something that really matters.”

If you have access to a library with a copy of Poets & Writers, I suggest reading this article whether you’re writing a memoir or writing a novel. I’ve often found the magazine available at Barnes & Noble stores.

When we think about how tall we are as writers, it doesn’t mean believing we’re taller than somebody famous. And when we think about writing about something that really matters, it doesn’t mean becoming full of ourselves because we are tackling an important subject of the day.

We do know what matters to us. We often avoid it, thinking who am I to write about this, thinking I can’t deal with this, thinking others have more dramatic stories to tell about this, and what this reminds me of are the lists of things we never want to talk about even with our loved ones or best friends. If you’ve known another person for a long time, you know what you cannot ask them because they refuse to discuss it. Maybe it’s something that happened in a war, the lost of a spouse or a child, a huge embarrassment at work.

If you have things you won’t talk about, they may be the stories you should be telling. Why? Because they’re important to you. Even in your silence, they have played a profound role in shaping your life. “Sooner or later,” writes Martin, “we have to face who we are in the world around us. We have to respond. We have to speak from the truest part of ourselves.”

When we respond–or, at least, try to respond–we find out how tall we are. A lot of us learn through the stories we read. We step into another person’s shoes and find out what it’s like to see what they have seen. What have you seen? Perhaps it will make a good story and perhaps it will resonate with the very people who need to hear it.

If you hurt while you’re writing it, you’re probably getting it right.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a story about racism and folk magic in northern Florida in the 1950s. The Kindle edition is on sale for 99 cents on January 6th.