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Pondering on a Memoir: Where and How to Begin

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Chris Mills

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My daughter (who apparently thinks I have led an interesting life) has asked me to write my memoirs, but I have no idea where to start. Julie Andrews may famously have sang, ‘start at the very beginning’ but, given I don’t recall my coming into the world then that doesn’t seem such a good place to start (sorry Julie). I read Buchi Emecheta’s autobiography Head above Water a while ago and noted that rather than chronologically, she had structured her memoirs episodically. It was very effective, though she started out with an amazing life story to tell which does help the task somewhat. I suppose it doesn’t really matter where I begin, since I could fiddle with the sequence later; the ‘don’t get it right, get it written’ approach to things.

That brings me to the vexed question of when it is appropriate to write one’s memoirs. If we ignore teen celebrity memoirs, it seems that generally you need to have acquired a certain gravitas, as for instance Diana Athill. Alternatively, you might have achieved something significant such as climbing Mount Everest or landing on the moon. It is only fair to point out however that some celebrities seem to get away with spending their lives writing memoirs, editing their life story endlessly. Say something one decade and pretend you said no such thing in volume two. In my case, it will probably be only my daughter, and if I’m lucky, my yet to be born grandchildren who will read mine. Without fame and fortune to my name (or indeed, an unduly miserable life), nobody is likely to be drawn to reading about my exploits in bakery and bookshop.

Actually, that last phrase might make a good title. Perhaps ‘From the Bakery to the Bookshop’ might work. It would be awfully alliterative as well as being short and snappy. I might even use a sub-title. I do like sub-titles, though I probably over use them. Whatever title you choose though, it is difficult to convey the full sense of a life. One title does not easily fit the whole of your experience. Most of us probably juggle more than one life (not necessarily illegally), and it would be tricky to pack all of our selves into one snazzy title. However, the words on the cover have to tempt a reader to look within the pages, to hook them from the beginning.

Though of course I am once again forgetting that since I am not rich, skinny, utterly miserable, an x-factor winner or a celebrity chef no one is really going to care. I just have to write the darn thing and hope that maybe I get to be famous (but not miserable) in the meantime. Fantasy apart, the worthwhile part will be leaving a little snippet of recorded family history. We all want to be remembered (in a good way) when we are gone. I hope to do quite a bit of living yet so perhaps I should consider this a work very much in progress. I don’t think I’ill ever be able to add a chapter about winning a fortune or a luxury cruise but I might manage some more modest adventures. I might even take up an extreme sport.

At this rate, my progress is going to be pretty slow; perhaps I should take refuge in writing a list. Lists are always useful in a time of crisis and I’m sure that if I could come up with a list of chapter headings then everything would be straightforward. Ok, let’s start at the very beginning….

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