Family Albums

In his tender and hilarious memoir, Clinging to the Wreckage, John Mortimer, best known as the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, writes:

The past is like a collection of photographs: some are familiar and on constant display, others need searching for in dusty drawers. Some have faded entirely, and some have been taken so amateurishly and on a day so dark that the subjects are seen like ghosts in a high wind and are impossible to identify. Assembled, they can be called anything you like: illustrations of the vanished professional middle-class world of England between the wars; or snapshots of an only child who had, in those slow-moving days, much time to notice things.

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. Many of the pictures are faint, slipping in and out of focus; others are all too clear as a glimpse of our earlier selves: Did I really wear that dress? And who are all those uncles and aunts and cousins at all those family events? Which one is the uncle who always got so drunk?

My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years. They are mainly women, painfully eager to know how to use writing to make sense of their life narrative–who they are, who they once were, what heritage they were born into–and they are immobilized by the size of the task. Where to start? Where to stop? What to put in? What to leave out? How to find the story’s proper shape and sequence? How to deal equitably with all that is still unreconciled: the alcoholic mother, the father who died or disappeared or otherwise disappointed the daughter who thought he could do no wrong.

I sympathize with their despair; 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. You’re not required to tell everybody’s story; you only need to tell your story. If you give an honest accounting of the important people and events in your life, as you best remember them, you will also tell the story of everybody who needs to be along on the ride. Throw everything else away. Don’t ask: “What will my sister think?” If your sister has a problem with your memoir she can write her own memoir.

I’ll leave the final word to John Mortimer, who got me started on the subject of family photographs. Here’s how he ends Clinging to the Wreckage: “These are the things that stayed with me for a while, before they left to go into a book.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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