July 23, 2015

You Belong to a Story

This week one of the Catholic Church’s leading writers, Fr. Robert Barron, rector of the Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago, was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It was big news for those of us who follow and admire Father Barron’s work.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading one of Barron’s early books, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002). Ordinarily, I don’t let my religious interests stray onto the pages of this blog, but there is a line in this book that seems so appropriate to the entire memoir venture that I felt moved to write about it.

Barron’s thesis is that living the Christian life involves three “paths.” Only the third path is relevant here: Chapter 3, Realizing Your Life is Not About You. Whatever its religious significance (charity, service, mission, being part of the “mystical body of Christ”) this path is one that I think most memoir writers find themselves on, sometimes to their surprise.

You think you are going to write your own story; and you find that it is not yours.

July 17, 2015

Telling Others’ Stories

A memoir is your own story, right? Not necessarily.

In thirty years of helping individuals record their memoirs, I have found that many, sometimes most of the stories people tell belong to someone else: a long-gone beloved grandparent, a father who recently died.

My clients are often moved not by pride or vanity but by something like filial piety: they know that if someone doesn’t tell their parents’ (or grandparents’) stories, no one will. He or she (the client) is the last bridge to precious family memories.

A few years back I was hired by a woman in her sixties to write the life story of her grandfather, who had died in 1920, before my client was born. The grandfather was a significant figure in family history but also something of a mystery. I was recruited to research and imagine his life as he had lived it.

July 12, 2015

One Pitfall of Success

My career at Memoirs Unlimited has been a great gift. I have helped write and publish the memoirs of fifty good and successful people. I have sat with presidents, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, and I have learned from their stories.

Along the way, I have been asked to chronicle the histories of several major New England institutions including the region’s oldest and most distinguished hospital, its longest-lived boarding school, and a Greater Boston real estate company remarkably entering its fifth generation of family management.

It’s an honor to be entrusted with these stories and others, and to know that I have told them effectively. I harbor only one regret. It’s simple:

July 10, 2015

What is the Right Age for a Memoir?

When I founded Memoirs Unlimited in 1987, I built my portfolio one client at a time. Self-taught and -propelled, I took some years to draw a demographic conclusion: my typical client was eighty years old!

Until you hit eighty, I reasoned, you think you are going to live forever. But after eighty comes ninety and you think, what are the odds? If anyone has ever thought about writing down their life, an eightieth birthday is a good trigger.

That was the mid-1990s, about the time Mary Karr’s wonderful memoir The Liar’s Club became a best-seller and opened the publishing floodgates. Karr (pictured above) wrote her book about growing up in East Texas with alcoholic parents while still in her thirties. Today, every young writer north of twenty seems to have a memoir on their résumé.

What gives? Why suddenly all these youthful memoirs?

July 3, 2015

My Beacon Hill Seminar

In October and November 2015, I will be teaching an adult education course titled “Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours.” The two-hour class will be offered once a week, on Mondays, 1–3 p.m., October 19–November 30, in the King’s Chapel Parish House at 64 Beacon Street in Boston.

As they say, space is limited!

My course is presented by Beacon Hill Seminars, a longstanding membership organization of people with “a vigorous interest in continuing their intellectual growth.” There are twenty courses in the fall catalog.

I was invited to teach as the founder of Memoirs Unlimited and presumably as someone who knows about working with mature adults on crafting narratives of their lives. Other courses cover the sciences, art history, music, literature, and philosophy.

My approach is my own, dreamed up out of whole cloth.

June 21, 2015

What Book Will Be at Your Bedside?

My favorite moment in thirty years of helping others write their memoirs occurred beside a deathbed. I was visiting one of my favorite clients, Dick P. He was flat on his back and very pale, but smiling as usual.

His wife was by his side. It was she who pointed out the book on Dick’s hospital side table: the memoir he and I had worked on together five years before.

“He shows it to everyone who comes in to see him,” she said. “Especially the pretty nurses.” It was a measure of the satisfaction his memoir had given Dick.

May 21, 2015

New Project: A Second Edition

Today I signed a contract to write and publish the second edition of a company history I first worked on twenty-five years ago.

The Nordblom Company is a vital and innovative Boston real estate development and management company now led by the fourth generation of Nordbloms. In 1990, via referral from another client, I began work with the third generation, Rodger P. “Rod” Nordblom (pictured).

The result was a 120-page hardbound anecdotal history illustrated with 30 photographs. I know that Rod was pleased with it, especially as the book helped memorialize his father, Robert C. “Bob” Nordblom, who had died in 1989.

Recently, I was approached by Rod’s son and successor, Peter C. Nordblom, about reprinting the original book.

May 5, 2015

Time: God’s Gift to the Memoirist

I sometimes joke with memoir clients that God invented time to make our job easier. When trying to decide in what order to tell and/or edit one’s life story, I say: “In the order God gave us, of course. Chronological order.”

The wisdom of this profound insight was brought home to me while reading Bob Smith’s otherwise appealing, chronologically disjointed memoir Hamlet’s Dresser.  

Smith’s story is remarkable: how being raised in a dysfunctional family while taking care of a severely retarded younger sister, often by himself, he fell in love with Shakespeare and—forty years on—found a remarkable calling reading Shakespeare aloud with senior citizen groups in New York City.

Truth to tell, I heard Smith lecture on Shakespeare at a private club about ten years ago. He is a compelling, highly entertaining expert. When I learned that he had written a memoir, I had to look at it.

April 27, 2015

My Favorite Memoirist? You Would Never Guess

I am preparing to teach a seven-week adult education course on Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours. My idea is for students to read and discuss famous memoirs as inspiration and guidance in writing their own.

Students will keep notebooks but they will not be asked to finish writing anything—only to be inspired, only to get started. As a thirty-year professional writer, I know that getting started is half the battle.

Seven weeks is not long enough to write a book about anything. But it is long enough to light a fire.

So in the four months remaining before the course begins, I am reading memoirs by the dozens, intending to select six or seven of these to excerpt for weekly assignments, and several dozen more to be cited as examples. Naturally, I am beginning with memoirs that I already have read and in some cases re-read.

This has brought me to the awareness that the memoirs I feel drawn to say a lot about my own life and how I see it. I imagine that my students will make a similar discovery.

Some examples:

January 2, 2015

Getting Back At It

After finishing up my history of The Governor’s Academy in 2012 and walking the Camino de Santiago with my adult daughter, I have spent much of the past 30 months writing my own still unpublished memoir.

Now, at the beginning of 2015, I have decided to get back into the business of helping people write and publish their memoirs. In the days and weeks ahead, I will be posting more material here about this process and about incentives I plan to offer my first clients after a long layoff.

If you have considered writing your memoir and want help writing, editing, designing, and publishing it, give me a shout. See “What You Can Do” in the column at right. And check back at this page in the weeks ahead.