Writing a Legacy-Memoir, Part 2

Robert D. SutherlandRobert D. Sutherland‘s published books include two novels and a scholarly work, Language and Lewis Carroll (1970), a definitive study ascertaining the degree to which the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and Symbolic Logic was self-consciously a nineteenth-century philologist exploring linguistic concerns in his fictions for humorous effect.

The first novel, Sticklewort and Feverfew (1980), was written for children, adolescents, and adults. It works simultaneousy on multiple levels, and was pilot-tested with all age groups at every stage of its nine-year composition. Robert illustrated it with 74 fully rendered pencil drawings, teaching himself to draw in the process. The book received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator.

The second novel, The Farringford Cadenza (2007), explores the consequences of illusion and self-delusion, the many faces of deceit, and people’s ethical responsibilities with regard to art and cultural values. As a vehicle for accomplishing these aims, the book takes the form of a suspenseful, humorous literary mystery which subtly skews generic conventions to continually surprise readers with reversals of their assumptions and expectations.

In addition to his books, Robert has published poetry, short fiction, articles on literature, education, and small-press publishing, and essays on political issues.

Continuing from yesterday’s post…

I decided to frame my legacy-memoir as a direct address to my descendants, a communication to the future from the past. This was a rhetorical choice. Anyone who undertakes to write such a memoir has to decide what to tell, how much to tell, and how to tell it. I decided to present mine as a cross-referenced mosaic, organized around general topics. I am not writing a conventional autobiography beginning as David Copperfield did in Chapter One with “I am Born”, and proceeding from there. The topics I’ve tentatively chosen (which may change as I progress) are as follows:

FOREWORD (direct address: introducing myself to my descendants and explaining my hopes and intentions)

CHRONOLOGY (timeline of significant life-events with historical context)

FAMILY (brief genealogical summary; description of my immediate family)

EDUCATION

READING

PHILOSOPHY

WORKING (jobs, training)

TEACHING (professional career)

WRITING

EDITING AND PUBLISHING

ARTWORK

MUSIC

CONCERNS

SOCIAL ACTIVISM

POLITICS

AMUSING INCIDENTS

PEOPLE

TRAVEL

SUCCESSES AND FAILURES

HOBBIES

PARENTING

THOUGHTS ON AGING

CONCLUSION (a summing up and wishing my descendants well)

Each of these topics will be treated in its own section, and each section will be free-standing, able to be read for itself. I conceive people reading in the memoir, not through it from beginning to end: picking, choosing, dipping at will. I’ll cross-reference between sections where appropriate.

So far, I have drafted the FOREWORD and am currently halfway through the sections on EDUCATION and WORKING; in both of these I am proceeding chronologically since both are developmental, earlier experiences providing a foundation for later. But not all sections will follow this model: I can see PARENTING, READING, PHILOSOPHY, CONCERNS, and SOCIAL ACTIVISM having their own topical subcategories.  Some sections of the legacy-memoir will be relatively long, some relatively short. Part of the fun is figuring out how to structure the sections. All persons who write legacy-memoirs must determine what they wish to say (choosing what to include, what to omit), how they wish to say it, and how to structure their presentation. There is not a single way to write a legacy-memoir.

However, there are certain things one should consider and keep in mind. Paramount is knowing what needs to be included.

Since you are writing to be read in the indefinite future, you must anticipate what your descendants might not know or realize about the time in which you lived, and supply the background, context, and factual information they need in order to understand what you are saying. Facts regarding culture, politics, the natural environment, law and governmental process, means of transportation (cars and highways, trains, airplanes), the energy supply, communications (newspapers, radio, TV, DVD’s, e-mail), etc. that are self-evident to you and taken for granted, may The Farringford Cadenzanot be at all self-evident to people living two hundred years from now; may be only vaguely understood, or altogether unknown. You must second-guess what those readers might need to have explained or described, and supply that information. (For example, whenever I cite a measurement of length, or weight, or volume, I use the English system (foot, pound, etc.), but always include as a parenthetical a conversion to metric (centimeter, meter, gram, etc.): the English system may still be used a hundred and fifty years from now—but that’s not something one should assume.)

It’s also important for you to try to guess what kinds of things your descendants might want to know or would find informative and interesting about you, your world, your life, your values and opinions, your activities, and your socio/political environment and be sure to supply that information. You have to guess what questions they might like to ask you, and then provide answers to those questions.

You’ve got to remember that you are reporting an “eyewitness” account from what, for them, is a time long past. It’s important to be honest, accurate, clear. (Opaqueness, vagueness, and ambiguity should be avoided, and remedied in your editing.)

Your personal history can be told anecdotally, as vignettes (humorous or grave) and short-short stories within the larger text. Everyone’s style is different. But it’s crucial that your account of what you’ve done, and where you’ve been, and what you’ve thought about it be interesting, informative, and fun to read.

Writing a legacy-memoir entails a lot of work. In the process, you’ll learn much about yourself, recall a great deal that you’ve “forgotten”, and gain new perspectives on what you’ve seen and done.

How many copies of the memoir should you make? A good question. At least one copy for each of your children, at least one copy for each of your grandchildren (present and projected)—and probably at least three each in addition that they can pass on to their children. Potentially burdening your offspring with multiple copies to supply to their offspring argues the need for an alternative plan of storing text through electronic means (continually updated to keep pace with evolving technology). Electronic storage will allow additional copies to be made by each generation as needed.

Also, you might wish to send a copy to the historical society or societies of the region(s) in which you did the bulk of your living. The archivists there might be happy to have your memoir in their collections.

Some of your descendants may be grateful to you for having thought of them, happy to have made your acquaintance, glad to have an accurate and coherent account of what preceded them. Hopefully they will be empowered by your gift to better understand their own experiences and to better manage their own thoughts, actions, and relations to the world. You can be sure that some of them, at least, will be carrying your genes!