”Photographs from the past are familiar to anyone trying to write a memoir or a family history–all those long-forgotten men and women begging to be remembered and to have their story put in some kind of order,” says William Zinsser in his column in The American Scholar.
Zinsser, the author of the classic book On Writing Well and more recently Writing About Your Life, teaches classes on writing memoir and family history at both The New School and Columbia University School of Journalism. Speaking of both the photographs themselves and the stories that accompany them, he says, “My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years.”
Like nearly everyone seeking to create a personal history Zinsser’s students are often overwhelmed by the task of trying to sort and organize. They struggle to decide what must be included and what can safely be left out. Are there skeletons in the family closet better left unrattled?
Many memoirists and family historians are so intent on “doing it right” that never manage to get these questions answered. They never complete their projects and their books remain unwritten.
Zinsser’s advice is simple, “……there’s just much too much stuff in the cluttered attic of memory. I can only offer one word of salvation: Reduce! You must decide what is primary and what is secondary.”
A family historian trying to document the distant past spanning several generations faces different challenges from one recording first hand memories that extend to the present day. A memoirist may not want to write a “tell all” book. The choices are up to you. There are no wrong answers.
Once you’ve decided what belongs in your book, don’t look back. “Don’t ask: “What will my sister think?” says Zinsser. “If your sister has a problem with your memoir she can write her own memoir.”
Click here to read Zinsser’s full article.