For three years now I’ve been submitting essays monthly to a print magazine called Black Lamb. ( Some of these articles have been opinion pieces, some book reviews, some humor; but most of them have been memoirs of changing points in my life.

I intend, when the time is right and before I forget, to self-publish a collection of these pieces in a small edition for my children, and for my grandchildren and future descendants. Over the years as a teacher of life-story-writing classes, I have stressed the importance of leaving behind a written record of our times, our choices, our changes, and what we have learned from our successes and failures, our good calls and our mistakes. I wish, and my students have agreed with me, that my own parents, grandparents, and ancestors from generations past had left me books like this to read.

Speaking of mistakes, though, let me tell you about mistake I made a couple of months ago. That month’s issue of Black Lamb had an essay by me about my father, a man I never knew, because he died when I was two years and one day old. I told of the many fine things I had learned about my father, from friends and family members who knew him well. I also mentioned that he was occasionally beset by lengthy stretches of melancholy, which my mother called his “Welsh moods.”

I made the mistake of sending a tear-sheet of the article to my older brother, who knew our father well, because my brother was fifteen when our father died. So well does my brother remember our father that he wrote back and corrected me. Apparently our father was not moody, but was always cheerful.

My mistake was not that I got my facts wrong. Maybe I was mistaken about my father’s alleged moodiness, but I was only reporting what I had heard. My mistake was not that I chose to include dark news when I talked about my father; as writers we’re supposed to explore the dark side, just as we’re expected to celebrate the bright. My mistake was to send this essay to my brother. What was I thinking? I should have suspected that he would be disturbed to read that his hero might occasionally have been gloomy.

The lesson I learned from this mistake: choose your audience. And remember, happily, that memory is a creative, inaccurate record. If you have siblings and you write about your parents, the chances are your memories will not match theirs. No two or more siblings remember the same parents.


9 Responses

  1. Very true, John, and I have five. I think I’ll stick to fiction.

  2. Don’t I know it, John! I’m oldest of six. For some, Dad could do no wrong, for others, he could do no right. Same for Mom. I fled 400 miles north, youngest went 1500 SW. Yet even in fiction I watch my words. I’ve long wondered how my two offspring see me and their dad.

    • Nikki, I suspect your offspring have different memories of their parents, but I also suspect the memories of both offspring are positive.

      • You’re too sweet, John, but thanks. I think the best any parent can hope for is a balanced assessment as a flawed but loving human doing the best job he or she could.

  3. I didn’t realize you knew my family, John! :=)
    My sister is 10 years younger — our recollections couldn’t be more different. She correctly assumed that I gave my first protagonist my version of our mother and — well, the response wasn’t pretty!

  4. How often I’ve wished for a written reminiscence from my (sunny)father, who died when I was 12, or my exhausted, (gloomy) mother who died the day my first daughter was born. All of them too busy working hard, and dying, to write, I guess. But I did write a memoir about my own family–published by a small NE press–and my children told me it was all fiction! A writer just can’t win!

  5. As long as you write what you remember, you’ve won. Your version of the truth is, in fact, valid, even if others may consider it fiction. And fiction is, in it’s own way, truth. And vice versa! What a looking glass we writers live in!

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