‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Walls is a moving and insightful memoir from a child of poverty.

‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Walls is a moving and insightful memoir from a child of poverty.

by Hugh Gilmore

The single hardest part of writing a memoir is deciding what to leave out. You’d think that was an easy thing to do, but it is not. It is difficult because the writer is so close to his material. Yes, it’s easy to know the big events of your life and the great stories, whether they be sad or wonderful. But sometimes, little things that have happened, or small decisions or an article you read, can actually be the source of a great change in your life.

You won’t have a yardstick for measuring what’s worthy of inclusion until you know your themes. You can’t know your themes until you’ve given your life some thought. In this week’s episode of the series I’ll offer some suggestions for discovering the themes of your life.

I’m in the process – the final week, I hope – of writing a memoir. I found a number of themes running through my life by making a list. I listed chronologically everything I could remember that marked a change in my life. In many cases I simply wrote the barest detail, e.g., “I graduated from high school.” In other cases I included the reasons why I made some change, e.g. “Teacher in high school, Brother Luke, encourages me in biology because I know so much and do so well; I later enter college in pre-med.”

But reading that made me go back and reread this earlier item on the list: “When I was nine, my next-door neighbor, Mr. Pinkerton, shared his hunting and fishing magazines with me. He sometimes took me fishing. He taught me to clean the pheasants and deer he shot when he went hunting. Mr. Pinkerton acted as a kind of father-figure to me at a time in my life when my own father was largely missing. After we moved away from Mr. Pinkerton, I went to the library every day and read nature books, trying to capture that father/son feeling again. I taught myself a lot.”

When I was 27, and a high school English teacher, “I read an article about a famous naturalist, poet and philosopher named Loren Eiseley. I read all his books. They affected my mind. I wrote him a long fan letter. We corresponded, then met. He encouraged me to develop myself further. With his help I went to school and became a primatologist and went off to study monkeys in the Caribbean and baboons in Africa.”

Hmmm, I thought, three times in life I caught the attention of an older man who praised and helped me in the field of natural history studies. In all three cases, I went far, but left the field when these men were no longer around to give me their support.

From that I deduced that a large part of my life was spent pursuing father figures. And that I had entered the field of science for the wrong reasons: I simply wanted to get fatherly approval, which I seemed to have wanted more than I wanted to do the work of a professional scientist (research, write papers, network, seek funding, etc.). That’s not a very good motive for entering a profession, which explains why I never went far in those fields.

But this realization, as hard as it was to admit, also helped me realize a major theme of my memoir: Fatherhood, from the point of view of a child.

There is, as you know, another viewpoint, just as important: Being a father. I have been a father twice, both boys. From two marriages. Any person, male or female, who has children from two different spouses knows what kinds of psychological difficulties come along with that decision. You, as a parent, have invested a lot of love, and loyalty, into your first child(ren) and begin your second time around with some diffidence. You also know there my be resentment between the two generations of your children. This may have an influence on their behavior, attitudes, and successes later in life. It is a very difficult and thorny path to travel, as common as it may seem.

But there, in a simplified way, I’ve described the route that led me to write a book about the two most important emotional themes of my life. I’m saying that a simple, annotated, chronological list of events in your life can help you discover some of your life’s themes. Even if you don’t intend to write, you might find it an interesting exercise in self discovery.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the bibliomystery and noir crime novel “Malcolm’s Wine,” another novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” and a collection of stories set in the world of rare book selling, “Scenes from a Bookshop.” All are available on Amazon.com in both print and e-book formats. His new memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” should be in print this fall.

  • Susan Bockius

    Thank you, Hugh! Great way to get started. I’m gonna try it!

  • Diana Raab

    Great article and much of the subject of my PhD Dissertation about the transformative elements of memoir writing! Thanks for sharing!