Write Part of My Memoir in November, Day 2: Researching Your Past

Write Part of My Memoir

A friend phoned me last week to wish me a happy birthday and asked me how Getting Naked for Money was going. “It’s going,” I said, “but slowly. My other books didn’t take so long to write.”

“Well, what do you expect?” my friend said. “It’s a memoir. They’re always harder.”

I hadn’t seen it that way. Going in, memoir seemed easier to tackle for a variety of reasons. For one thing, no research would be required. The details of my life would provide the required primary materials.

What had I been thinking?

No research required? Are you kidding?

Memory is notoriously unreliable. As a recent New York Times piece, discussing Mary Karr’s new book, “The Art of Memoir,” noted:

Even nonfraudulent memoirs, by scrupulous writers making good-faith efforts to reconstruct their pasts, are by nature unreliable — as tenuous and conditional and riddled with honest error as memory itself.

As anchors for documenting my life as a travel writer, I have copies of the guidebooks I wrote; clippings of my articles; and files of contracts and correspondence with editors. There’s something to be said for being a packrat. But they’re far from sufficient to create a complete picture, especially since I didn’t keep experiential journals. Taking notes for books and articles is not the same as writing down how I felt during a particular period of time — or who I worked and socialized with.

As it turned out, “making a good-faith effort to reconstruct” my past has involved extensive use of search engines and social media. How did people write memoirs before they had Google to check on a timeline of current events that intersect with events in their own life, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to reconnect them with people from the past? It’s been fascinating, but also time consuming, as time consuming as — or more than — any other type of research.

Hmmm…how did people write memoirs? Has the genre been reinvented in the digital age?

Next: And what about structure?

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About the Author

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

7 Enlightened Replies

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  1. That’s very true on the greater ease of researching timelines on the internet nowadays. Here’s another question, that’s had me stumped the last couple days: When you quote someone saying something twenty years ago, can you use direct quotes?–I say yes; the reader is smart enough to know, this is you recalling from memory, and if it’s not entirely accurate, hey, well, that’s what libel insurance is for, right?

  2. Edie says:

    Excellent question. So far, I’ve been using direct quotes sometimes, indirect other times — but never direct quotes in cases where the person might be displeased! When I get closer to publication, I’ll have to talk libel insurance with you!

    • Yes, I did a direct quote from a person who was . . . deceased, but I ran the column by his nephew, who loved it, then I still agonized over whether it was legit. I don’t have libel insurance, too expensive probably. And, I figure, I’m not important enough—yet.

  3. As to how former memoirists did it…maybe journals, religiously recorded every day…oh my, I’m doomed. I have a huge collection of diaries and journal’s from a ten-year old Girl Scout to 40-something political worker, to 55-year-old traveler. All of them peter out after 2 or 3 days. I would just have to make up the details.

    • Edie says:

      I was amazed at how many of the events I thought I remembered clearly couldn’t have happened, based on outside sources. Maybe the problem is that now everyone can check!

      New motto: Never trust a memoir over 30 (years old)!

  4. Kate Kaemerle says:

    The internet certainly does help but nothing can replace those conversations with other people that were there. They will remember things that you don’t!

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