Last fall, I was asked by a prominent public figure if I would be interested in helping her write a memoir.
Though I don’t have experience writing memoirs, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. The opportunity to sit alongside this strong, remarkable woman and be entrusted with the responsibility of hearing her stories and helping her find a way to shape them into a cohesive narrative that would be relevant and meaningful to a mass audience was impossible to decline. Plus, memoir is one of my favorite genres, so I felt I had a solid sense of the elements a powerful and marketable memoir requires. I reckoned I’d figure out the finer points of writing in this genre as I’ve figured out most things in life: by simply doing it.*
I enter her home, which is immaculately clean, for our first “formal” interview session. We have agreed we will meet as frequently as feasible in person and weekly by phone so that I can begin recording her history. Out of these early audio files and pages upon pages of written notes, including reminders about follow up questions and other sources I should contact, we will build the eventual book.
But even before I sit down to talk with her, I am distracted. Beyond all she will tell me over time, there will also, I am suddenly realizing, be all she won’t tell me. I am seized with wonder and worry; there’s more to attend to and consider than I initially thought. What is on the record and what is off? Will the books that are sitting on the coffee table–the books that cement an image of her as intellectual and worldly–eventually have some significance? Is she even reading them or are they her husband’s? I don’t know this now, of course, but I make a note of them. Soon, my notebook is divided into two distinct sections- the notes about what she has said, and the notes about what she hasn’t: the objects in her environment; the places in her home that I’ll ask to see eventually but for which we haven’t yet developed enough rapport; the people whose contact information I’ll ask for months from now.
After this first session, which was nearly three hours, I sit down and review my notes. Five pages of what she has told me and my parenthetical notes. Everything seems important, even the details that probably aren’t, like what time we met and where, and what she was wearing. I type the notes and save them in a file and allow myself the little luxury of imagining that someday, these may be part of some university’s or institution’s archives.
Then, I shut the notebook and make an entry on my calendar about next week’s meeting.
*or, as they say in Spanish, “aprender caminando,” or “learn while walking.”