I received feedback on my manuscript about a month ago, that I needed to provide a lot more background about my parents to explain why my childhood was both so fun and funny. One reviewer (thanks Jen!) suggested that I explain why my father was such a good cook and why I grew up in a house full of antiques. I took the feedback to heart and set about interviewing my 86-year old father to collect the details of his life, particularly the details that were of interest to my friend. Every night, we spoke on the phone for about an hour. At first, we just talked through a chronology of his life. I typed his stories into a computer as he was speaking to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. (It helps to have 100+ wpm typing speed!). After several weeks, I had collected enough information that I started the construction of a “My Dad” chapter that I intend to put at the beginning of my book.
After several weeks of writing, I produced 18 pages that documented my Dad’s life prior to his becoming a father. The text is full of little details that he shared, which hopefully makes the writing a little more like a story and less like a living obituary. I sent the 18 pages to my father to review and we talked through the material together, by phone, paragraph by paragraph. But, to my surprise, every paragraph needed a change.
I had only written exactly what he told me and he still had a zillion changes. A “dinner invitation,” became a “dinner party invitation.” “Raising chickens,” was corrected to “raising 100 chickens.” As it turned out, each little change added color to the story. The small details were important to the truthful storyline. It’s a lot easier to imagine the pressure of a first date (w/my Mom) at a dinner party with 1/2 dozen other couples from work, than a simple dinner invitation with one other couple when no one has to know if it doesn’t work out. Similarly, raising a few chickens and collecting eggs, feels a lot differently than caring for ~100 chickens. If the inaccuracies had remained, the story would simply have morphed loosely into fiction.
So, does a biographer always get it right? After my experience, I would say ‘no.’ Maybe that’s obvious to everyone except me, but it sure feels like documenting the past is as much art, as factual reporting. The biographer shapes the past much like an artist shapes an image. Neither is perfect, and our minds fill in the gaps, whether we like it or not. It’s harder to write, or draw, all the details, but the added information can make the difference between fact or fiction, realism or illusion.
For those of you waiting to write your memoirs – start! A living reviewer can make a world of difference.