Monday, January 7, 2013

Memoirs are Better than Journals

When I went to this year’s Oxford Conference for the Book, I attended a panel about writing biographies. Two of the panelists got into a discussion on writing about living people vs. people who have passed on. 

John Aloysius Farrell – White House correspondent and reporter for the Boston Globe and Denver Post – said history is most accurate when it’s recorded right away. The sooner a biography is written, the better.

Jon Meacham – Pulitzer Prize- winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House – disagreed. He said we can’t fully understand events as they happen. For a President of the United States, for example, he said it takes about 30 years to understand the impact he made.

I agree completely with Meacham. I feel you cannot write history accurately when the events are still happening.

When I was a freshman in college, my roommates and I threw a party. It was probably the best party I went to in college. When I got back to my apartment, I got out my journal and started to write all about it – the people who came, the games we played, the jokes we told. I didn’t get very far before I had to do something else. When I came back, I decided not to finish that entry. A decade from then, would I really want to read about a party I went to? I was having a horrible day at the time, which I decided it was more important, so I wrote about my bad mood instead.

Little did I know, I had met my future husband at that party.

At the time, I did not understand the full import of what I was doing. Now I’m stuck with an entry about a bad day I had, which I care nothing about, instead of one of the most important events in my life.

If I wrote about that party now, the writing would be completely different. I know what to include and what to leave out. I can add facts that meant nothing to me at the time but have a lot of meaning now. I understand the effects of the actions. Most importantly, I can add my husband’s point-of-view. The account I write now would be more accurate than the one I started when I was in college.

That’s not to say the things happening to us now shouldn’t be recorded. Facts become fuzzy and can be forgotten. However, I don’t think recording current events counts as writing a history. It's more like taking notes, which you’ll need to write a history later.

When we sit down to write in our journals we always describe what’s happening to us right then, which is important, but I also like to write about things that happened in my past. For example, I might write something like, “I just remembered the craziest thing my brother did when we were kids,” or, “Today I was thinking about a game I used to play with my friends.”

Eventually, I’d like to turn it all into one complete piece. My kids and grandkids (if they feel any desire to read my journal) won’t want to sift through years of bad days and meaningless activities to get to the jewels of what mattered. I’ll gather those jewels myself using the impressions I had at the time, my memory, and the wonderful gift of hindsight.

That’s the best way to write history.


  1. Having lived long enough that my early life is now almost prehistoric I think that both methods, memoir vx journal have great worth. Recording events as they happen is good because quite honestly I can no longer remember the day to day precious details of my relationship with my husband. Now that he has passed I would LOVE to have that information. At the same time I dislike "groomed" entries in a journal. You never know when a "useless" detail can be of assistance. For example my Grandma wrote a journal that told that it took her and her husband 2 and 1/2 hours to travel 12 miles in a wagon loaded with household goods. I was thrilled to find that entry because I was writing historical novels and that detail was very relevant to me. Keep up the good work dear...I am very proud of you! CJ

  2. Being into historical fiction, I think you might like 11/22/63. It's a cool what if, and it is really trippy. Was reminded of it by this post.


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