‘Tell me about when you were a little girl.’
Coaxing stories and memories out of parents and grandparents was at one time my favourite way of putting off bedtime. Nowadays – and once the stories are written down – it fulfils deeper purposes with broader benefits.
Parting the curtains
For a child, listening to stories is like visiting the old days hand in hand with the parent or aunt or grandparent who used to live there. It’s a comforting way to open up the past: their past, your past, the stories that shape family life. It’s like peeping behind the curtains that part the generations. People who lived in wartime Europe can show you a world of gas lamps and ration cards; of sculleries thick with steam on washday Mondays; of candles casting monster shadows on the stairs; of schools with rows of wooden desks and inkwells where you got the strap for a spelling mistake…
Bringing back your memories reconnects you to the people and places you used to know. They matter because they have helped shape your life. Everyone has a story; it’s part of who we are. The stories of our parents and grandparents enrich our own and so become part of us too. To know where we came from and who was there before us affirms our place in the world. And we may meet a whole new set of friends and relations who, whether or not they are still alive, all belong to our extended family.
Invited to reminisce, some people say, ‘Nothing interesting happened; just everyday life, too humdrum to bother with.’ But everyday life is what links us to them; we need to know what it was like to be living in those days and seeing things with their eyes, and it’s the ordinary details that show us. They show us what’s changed, too; such as encyclopaedias supplanted by Google, mangles by tumble-dryers. Yet memories, like old photographs, are worth preserving, because they hold the real lives of real people. Writing them down is a way to strengthen our sense of belonging, as well as to entertain our children, because it keeps our memories from crumbling away into oblivion.
Writing the wrongs
Not all stories are so cosy, nor childhood so safe. As a writer you hear experiences of abuse, persecution, fear or neglect which you would have thought came from Victorian orphanages rather than 20th-century suburbia. Letting out people’s festering memories helps drain the poison. ‘Now I have set out what happened in black and white,’ they admit, ‘I can begin to accept it and then sort it out. If not righting the wrongs, at least understanding them.’
The problems may have more to do with career or circumstance than personal injustice. When I wrote the biography John Marco Allegro, the Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I wanted to put the record straight on the wrongs done to this scholar’s academic reputation. In the 1950s he had helped to decipher the newly discovered scrolls but raised questions that brought him up against the might of the religious and academic establishment. He was also my father, and going through his lifetime collection of letters, books and other writings helped me understand a brilliant but often difficult linguist and family man.
Different purposes, same result
So there are many reasons for writing memoirs, and everyone has their own hopes and purposes in doing it. You may want to sum up your career and see what a lot you have achieved over the years. You may want to keep a record of family history, which can be passed from generation to generation to show your children and grandchildren where they came from. It can be a way to meet your forebears and keep their memory alive. It can be a way to lay your troubles to rest. Good stories, bad stories, human stories – they’re all part of who you are.
One of our Story Terrace Writers, you can learn more about Judy in her writer profile.