Writing Memoir: Why and How

By Elma (Martens) Schemenauer

I grew up on a farm halfway between Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan. As a child I picked wildflowers along prairie trails, jumped into haystacks, and sang to the cattle in the pasture.

I enjoyed hearing stories. Some were about Adam and Eve, Daniel in the lions’ den, and other Biblical characters. Some were my Mennonite relatives’ stories about the Old Country (Russia), immigration to Canada, and early years in Saskatchewan.

Your memories may be quite different from mine. Whatever they are, writing them down can yield many benefits for yourself and other people.

Why write memoir?

1. Gives us a sense of identity and helps us boost that in others.
In Harold Rhenisch’s book Carnival, the father tells his son, “That is why I tell you stories…so I can remember who I am and someday maybe there will be something there to help you remember who you are.”
2. Helps us appreciate what we have compared with what people had in the past.
For example, today we wash clothes in automatic washing machines, in the past, some people used washboards.
3. Draws generations together.
Draws people from different backgrounds together. All human beings face many of the same psychological and spiritual challenges even though their material situations may differ.
4. Helps people understand historical events and situations.
If you experienced life on a warship in the 1960’s, you have insider information of interest to people who didn’t.
5. Helps us learn from other people’s mistakes.
Maybe you pursued a line of work that didn’t suit your abilities. Other people could benefit from your insights.
6. Makes us happy as we relive happy experiences,
Birthday party, a graduation, a rescue at sea.
7. Helps us work through sad experiences,
The break-up of a romantic relationship or the loss of a child.

How do you write memoir?

1. Consider the feelings of people you mention in your writing.
What if they don’t like what you write? Arguments could ensue. Avoid negative responses by sharing your writing journey with the people you’re writing about.
2. Don’t present yourself as totally perfect, happy and successful, or as totally tragic and downtrodden.
This can be boring and unrealistic. Strike a more realistic note by exploring your vulnerabilities and problems even as you strive toward better things.
3. Combine appropriate research with personal memories.
Read, visit museums, etc. to become familiar with the period you’re writing about. Don’t overload readers with the results of your research. Use only what belongs naturally in your writing.
4. Decide who you’re writing for and keep your readers in mind.
Maybe you’re writing mainly for members of your family, or for people living in a certain geographical area, or for gardeners or medical professionals. Consider what your readers will understand and find interesting.
5. Decide what aspects of your life make it worth writing about.
Set limits early and decide which parts of your life will be most representative of the story you wish to tell.
6. Have an overall purpose.
You may want to show how pioneers helped each other and thus encourage helpfulness in people today. You may want to show how people of the past followed their dreams, endured hardships, etc., and thus encourage such qualities in people today.


Elma (Martens) Schemenauer is a child of Mennonite immigrants from Russia. She was born and grew up in Saskatchewan, taught in Nova Scotia, and worked in publishing in Toronto for years. She now lives with her husband on a sagebrush-dotted hillside in Kamloops, BC. Elma is the author of 77 published books.
They include the 1940s-era Mennonite novel Consider the Sunflowers and YesterCanada: Historical Tales of Mystery and Adventure.

 

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2 Comments on “Writing Memoir: Why and How”

  1. Thank you Elma!
    I so appreciate all your encouragement to writers. These thoughts on memoirs prompt me to be vigilant to leaving in word what I think is important to leave behind me.
    I love the contest prompts too; I just sent one off; thanks again.

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