Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.
Writing a memoir or autobiography for another person, or perhaps even for yourself, presents the well known problem of getting at the fact versus the fiction or invention (the same thing) of what happened in the past. What do you do when the subject of the book only remembers snippets of a conversation or fragments of a scene? What if the subject does not have the descriptive skills to make a significant character in his story come alive with details about that character's appearance or mannerisms? What if his descriptions of place and people are limited to adjectives such as "beautiful" and "nice."Joseph Conrad
One approach would be to leave out everything from the period before my client could remember events clearly, as Stephen King did in his memoir, On Writing. That works for the the first problem but doesn't solve the question of detail. Another is to use a tool that historical fiction writers employ, research.
I decided early on that I was going to rely on research. I had photo albums from as far back as the 20s and a diary from the subject's mother to describe the environment that the subject, and his parents, grew up in and to fill in details about stories handed down from his parents. I used these materials as a jumping off point for further research on the Internet.
What did a schoolboy in Germany wear in 1950? What are the parts of a recommissioned troop transporter? What was it like to ride on the Santa Fe Super Chief? What was going on socially and politically in the U.S. when the subject arrived as a refugee here? What was Phoenix Arizona like in the 50s and 60s?
At first I was thrilled, and so was my client, to provide details and descriptions of things he did not remember clearly. However, a real danger soon presented itself: In poring over the photographs and historical articles, I was beginning to make assumptions about what my client saw, even how he felt.
Because I love history, and I love to write, I was also getting carried away describing locations and scenery and everyday items. At one point I got absorbed in the details of German tinplate toy cars made in Germany before the war, and described all their functions, even though my client could note only a couple of them, and even though they did not hold much importance in the narrative.
In reviewing drafts of the first couple of chapters, and with the help of my writing group and their critiques, I realized I was bogging the action down with the descriptions. Worse, the writing reflected my voice, not my client's. As my husband and partner noted (my only male first reader), the passages sounded like they were written by a woman, not a man.
I am now about halfway through the interviewing process. Now, as I write out the sections at hand from the interview notes, I am more aware of keeping my client's voice and perspective. I will still have to craft a compelling narrative out of a list of events. I will need to present themes that emerge and weave them into an appropriate structure. More about that next time.