In the years leading up to my retirement in 2009, I had been collecting archival material on the social activities and documents relating to the history of the Department. A copy of these was deposited in the University of Otago Hocken Collections as the Departmental archive. An online version of the archive was a part of the Departmental website in the form of a time-frame spreadsheet which linked to the individual items of the archive. In 2010 a limited number of copies of the book entitled: "A History of the Microbiology Department 1950 - 2010" was printed and launched to an invited group of Microbiology "luminaries" in the Departmental tea room on December 16th, 2010. Later when the Departmental website was redesigned, the online archive was discontinued.
In 2015 I undertook to revive interest in the Departmental history by creating a memoir in the form of a blog in which each blog post became a chapter in the blog-a-book project. Existing staff members were sent drafts of the blog for their comments and approval. This also included photos of their lab groups and achievements which were not able to be part of the previous more limited print version.
The end result of this enterprise was an ebook with links to archival material, a print-on-demand print version and this comprehensive web online version.
This book is written in the form of a memoir and it is therefore useful to say a few words about memoirs.
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 is 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 bestseller and the best plan is to publish it as an ebook and have a print-on-demand version as an option.
More advice about writing a memoir can be found: Here.
The Overall Structure
The overall structure of this memoir is: a brief background about the Department before the arrival of Professor John Miles, then chapters about each of the major staff members, followed by summary chapters for the 1990s and 2000s and then a comprehensive chapter on 'My Story'. The 'Final Word' is given by Frank Griffin who sums up the esprit de corps of the Department with a video.