The Essay is a daily personal story submitted by a reader. Got one to tell? Check out the guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
It was a Sunday in May, 2010, and I was two-finger-pecking at the keyboard on my computer, composing another anecdote for my memoir, which I hoped to self-publish in time for my 80th birthday in May, 2011.
My mother had died before her 80th and my father not long after his, so I did feel a metaphorical flutter of the wings of “the angel of death” wafting me on.
The radio was on, tuned to CBC One, as it is almost all day every Sunday. Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Rose Tremain. The author had a very strong opinion about what should not be written. Quite emphatically, she declared that there were already far too many people who had written memoirs.
Instantly, I stopped typing. She had a point. Many people (even a few known to me) were busily writing about their lives.
I’d rejected the idea of taking a “writing your life” course. I didn’t want to be influenced, or to share with others in class. I knew what I wanted to relate.
I had no intention of “telling all.” I thought too many people had told far too much. My memoir would not be therapy.
I hoped to write as if I were chatting with friends, telling some anecdotes. I’d had many life adventures – some quite amusing – and I didn't want those stories to die when I did.
I’d decided I would not try to sell my book. Copies would be gifts to relatives and friends. Yes, there would be a monetary cost, but on the positive side, I wouldn’t have to worry about selling enough copies to get my money back.
For two weeks or so I brooded, writing nothing. While ruminating, a possible title popped into my mind: In My Anecdotage. I smiled. “How witty,” I thought, “and original, of course.”
I Googled that title. It is not original. I stopped smiling.
I continued to brood for a few more weeks, writing nothing. But then I learned that titles are not copyrighted, so perhaps the person who used those words in 1927, if still alive, wouldn’t be offended if I did as well.
Back I went to the computer. As my book would not be on bookstore shelves, I reasoned, Rose Tremain's eyes would not be sullied by seeing it.
I pecked away again, and learned that even when writing about one's own life, there are moments when it’s wise not to write anything if one wishes to sound positive.
A competent technical person had to be hired to get the tome ready for printing. I had done my own typing and editing. For a cover, I recycled a hand-crafted Christmas card given to my family when I was 3. I think I know who the artist was, but as it isn’t signed I can’t be sure. It shows a log cabin in our frozen north (where I spent my early childhood) with a dog team heading home.
The book was printed and ready for distribution on my 80th! I mailed a box of 32 copies to Montreal, and with 20 copies in my suitcase flew to New York to begin my “book tour.”
I made contact with cousins and friends in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire as well as New York, then onward I went by bus to Montreal and Ottawa to distribute the 32 copies to friends and former colleagues. Back in Victoria, I mailed many more copies to friends in 11 countries. Surely Canada Post must have shown a profit in 2011!
The reactions from recipients have been interesting and mostly rewarding, and I learned something about the characters of the people who responded in writing.
Different aspects of the memoir caught the attention of individual readers. Several people who knew me long ago have remarked that they could hear my voice, and it seemed as if I was in the room speaking to them. This has pleased me, because that was what I was trying to accomplish.
A couple of readers have been very intuitive and were able to read between the lines. Almost unbelievably, a few said they had read the book twice!
Some have offered suggestions for improvement. (Too late!) A correspondent in Finland said a map would have been helpful. A former travel acquaintance from Sweden was astounded at all the roaming I have done. She has lived in the same house in Stockholm all her life.
Two former colleagues in Ottawa have decided to write their own memoirs after reading mine. Some younger friends have declared they hope to write about their lives “some day.”
Two people here in Victoria have shown me writings about their mothers. I have begun urging people of my vintage to tell their stories now. We are, after all, history.
It’s now a year since the book was finished. If I’d known I would still be on this Earth, I would have waited and “massaged” the text again. There are a few errors, and I cringe at some of the sentences that could have been written better. There’s a list of items I forgot to include.
Ah well, I am resigned to accepting the book for what it is. Because it exists, some aspects of my life will remain after my departure, if real books are still given shelf space.
I encourage you to tell your story, despite the musings of Rose Tremain.
Renie Grosser lives in Victoria.