Before retiring from the Microbiology & Immunology Department I accepted a commission to compile an online version of the social archives as part of the history of Microbiology, University of Otago. The concept seemed simple — assemble archival material into a time-frame and the events and people would tell the story of the Department. While this may be relatively easy for a former staff member or student to find their way around, but those unfamiliar with the Department would not know where to look or which path to follow.
A limited number of guidebooks entitled: “A History of the Microbiology Department 1959 - 2010” were printed to supplement the online archive. A book launch was held in the Departmental Tea Room on December 16th, 2010 to an invited group of Microbiology “luminaries” as part of the Christmas festivities.
As time went by the interest in maintaining the online version and the traffic to the departmental archives waned and the archive was eventually taken off-line.
To revive interest in the department history, I undertook to create a blog-a-book version of the departmental history with links to the archival material. Each chapter became a blog post which allowed for more photos and illustrations to be used and also provide an opportunity for comments, additions and corrections to be made. The resulting publication began to resemble more of a ‘memoir’ than a blog or a book.
The end results were an ebook and a printed version being published with built-in links to the archival material. Since the history project morphed into a memoir, a brief explanation about the pros and cons and the nature of memoirs is given below.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The whole purpose of writing the 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.
- 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.
2. Don’t mention every single person in the department.
3. Don’t mention every event in its chronological order.
4. Don’t fail to organize the story.
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.
The above advice about writing a memoir comes from a blog post from Bookbaby.