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Writing My Memoirs

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

Remembrance of Things Past, an autobiographical novel by Marcel Proust, runs to 3,200 pages in seven volumes. Mine won't be that long. I couldn't afford the printer cartridges.

My sister Kay's first concern when I told her I was writing my memoirs was that I was suffering from a terminal disease. I'm not, but I am 78. Once Alzheimer's kicks in it will be too late.

I'm writing memoirs, not an autobiography. Memoirs are less formal, less concerned with chronology, less encompassing. An autobiography is usually structured around actual events; memoirs concentrate more on how the authors felt about events in their lives.

Everyone deserves at least one book, even if she or he lived a conventional life in one location. That life, I am convinced, will have interesting aspects worth putting down on paper. Some people may require more pages, but every person alive has had a unique life experience.

How candid should I be? While my parents are both gone, my wife Linda, daughter Rachael, grandson Gavin, sister Kay, ex-wife, friends, and neighbors are very much alive. I don't want to cause them embarrassment or pain. There is no erotica, no porn. Were it a movie, it might get a PG rating because of "strong language, smoking."

I've encountered two major difficulties. First is the organizational structure. It will be loosely chronological; it would be strange to place my childhood on the farm at the end or my grad school experience before high school days.

Most people instinctively look back on their lives as a series of chapters. What those chapter headings should be is the problem. One way to proceed would be by people I've known, loved, enjoyed, and, in some cases, loathed.


Over the years most of us will encounter fascinating family members and friends, and I've certainly had my share of what the Reader's Digest once featured as "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met."

The chapter headings could also be spatial. I've lived at least a year in Towamensing, Collegeville, State College and Erie in Pennsylvania and Alameda, San Jose, San Leandro, Danville, and Fairfax in California.

I could also structure the memoir around employment–farm kid, lumberjack, intern at the State Department, trash hauler, warehouseman, college professor. Activities ought to be covered as well. I was a 4-Her, anti-war activist, environmentalist, campaign manager, preservationist, poet. Those need at least a few paragraphs each.

I finally decided on a mish-mash, or, if you like culinary references, a gumbo. Here's a small sample of my headings so far: Fossils, Hiking, Dead Steer, Auto Wrecks, Dumpster Diving, Losing the Farm, John Updike, and Life on Morton Street.

Thus the first big difficulty, the organizational structure, has been dealt with by having no structure. That is a fairly good reflection of how I've lived the last 78 years.

The second major difficulty is deciding when to quit. Do I put in a section on the time two friends and I broke into a house? Are my teaching methods worth a page or two? Does birding warrant a section, or the trips to Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, or why I liked picking potatoes more than thinning apples?

Linda, who works in pastels, has a problem knowing when a painting is finished. Sometimes I tell her, "Stop. It's done." Writing a memoir is similar. I don't know when to stop. Maybe Proust will be my model after all.

~ Roy Christman





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