Interview with Denis Ledoux

Published 2021-03-01.
So tell us a little about your interest in memoirs. What got you started? How much did your passion to find your own story figure into the mix?
As a child, like many people who write or teach memoirs, I was a story listener. My grandparents lived upstairs from my family, and when they had family visiting, I would go up to their apartment to listen to everyone. I would (literally) sit at their knees on a stool, and without especially looking at either my grandfather or grandmother, I would listen attentively. In my workshops when I ask how many attendees were this kind of kid, I am always see a majority of people lift their hands. It’s just who we are and who I was. It’s a gene memoir writers have

So, I’ve always been passionate about personal stories. Why did something happen? How did you feel about it? How did you react and why? What did others do and say? Later, I went to the university far away and said to my friends, “You know how when you were little and your granduncles and grandaunts were visiting and you wanted to hear about how it was when they were little or when they were young and so you hung around to hear the stories.” I was genuinely surprised when people responded with “I don’t know where you grew up, but where I grew up, people weren't like that.”

But, they were wrong. There were people like that were they grew up. I have come to understand that the difference between these people who were my friends in college and me was not where we grew up but some part of who they were and some part of who I was. They did not have the memory gene.

At one point, naturally enough, I wrote autobiographical fiction and I would read from my stories to audiences. Since my tales were historical—often my history I would ask people for their story, their history. It was not much of leap from there to leading the Turning Memories Into Memoirs workshops and then producing all my books that enabled people to write their stories.

Of course, I also wanted to preserve the stories I heard in my childhood and I wanted to write about my own life and have done so extensively. One of my favorites is We Were Not Spoiled, a memoir I co-authored with my mother.
Why would someone want to write a memoir?
First of all, telling a story is a pleasure—it's a natural way to communicate. (Just listen for the storytellers next time you're at a party or gathering.)

There is also a human compulsion to record the past, to preserve what's changing and to celebrate accomplishment.

Finally, many of us feel a need to find meaning in life. Writing is a vehicle for exploring the what and the why of life and making sense of it. Lifewriting can be very growthful. Some begin the process knowing this, others discover it while writing their memoir.
Your interest in memoir writing goes way back to the late 1980s. What was it like in those early years before the popular surge in interest? Did people look at you like you were crazy?
When I started leading memoir-writing workshops in 1989, people would say things like, “I have this crazy idea that I want to write a memoir.” So they didn’t look at me as if I were crazy—they looked at themselves that way. Many were apologizing for wanting to leave a lifestory behind. By about 1995, I wasn’t hearing that any more. It had become part of the culture to leave a memoir.

I did not meet any other memoir professionals until I went to the Association of Personal Historians conference in Amherst Massachusetts in 1996. (Shameless plug: they voted me 1996 Memoir Professional of the Year!) Before then, the only people I was aware of who were engaged in memoir work were academics whose books I had read. Until that conference, I thought I was a one-of-a-kind.
What are the first steps one should take to get started writing a memoir?
Step One is to make a Memory List—a list of all the relationships and events in your life. It might have hundreds of items: births, deaths, illnesses, friends, failures, successes, anything and everything—so take your time. You'll refer back to this list repeatedly.

Step Two is to choose the ten most important items on your list—items without which your life could not have been the same. Set the realistic goal of writing three-to-five-page stories around each core item. Later on, short pieces can be expanded and combined. Your manuscript will add up page by page, story by story. Don't worry about chronological order as you write. Start anywhere that interests you.

If you have difficult memories, give yourself permission to take it slowly. Writing happy memories first may give you the confidence to tackle the painful ones.

I do offer a free e-book on creating and utilizing a memory list on my website. It is to be found in the My Memoir Education area. http://turningmemories.com/memorylist.html.
How can memoir writers improve the recall of their memories so that they can write with more detail?
The Memory List is always the first tool a memoir writer should make use of for details and memories, but there are certainly a variety of other tools. Here are a few activities that really work.

* Analyze your family photos, historical photos, paintings of the time.
* Refer to journals, letters, yearbooks, newspapers.
* Make lists about yourself and family members: favorite foods, sayings, pastimes, songs, etc. (be serious or frivolous).
* Talk about the past with people who were there.
* Write time capsule descriptions of yourself or others.
* Read a book or see a film set in the same era.

Visualization is also an effective technique. Try to visualize the scene you are describing: Where were you sitting, standing, etc? Who was with you? What were they wearing? what was the weather like? This method can really lead to some very detailed writing!
What resources and tools are useful to someone writing a memoir?
An open and reflective mind is one of the most important tools a memoirist can have.

Interviews on MP3s or on the internet, books, and the Internet generally can all offer valuable information when putting one’s life into a larger context. Information gleaned from these sources can help the writer remember and evaluate additional details.

A good dictionary and basic writing skills are, of course, ever useful.

And of course, coaching and editing are important at some point.
How do you deal with the issues of false memory or “doctored” memories?
There are people who have suffered a traumatic experience and have no recollection of it for years, as well as people who wish to manipulate the reader’s opinion or settle a score through the written word. These are not issues with which I have had to contend with in my career.

That having been said, the memory can be self-serving or misleading. Diaries, newspapers, and interviews can either corroborate or correct your memory. Memoirs have to be consistently corroborated with the use of written text, recordings, photographs or artifacts.

Drawing on other sources also widens your perspective and gives your stories authentic detail. Researching a period may uncover clues to the puzzles of your past: you can learn a lot by relating family history to world events you were unaware of at the time.
What are the obstacles you see that prevent people from writing their memoirs or not completing them? What do you recommend to overcome those obstacles?
Indiscipline is one of the greatest obstacles that can face a memoir writer. Writing regularly is critical to success. Irregular or sporadic writing prevents the memoirist from getting into a flow and will greatly prolong the writing process.

I recommend that every memoir writer set a regular time to write every week—and even better, every day This will increase productivity and help get the writer into a rhythm.

A lack of broad knowledge about the period of time being covered by a memoir can be a serious handicap, but this can be corrected through research. You ought never to write a memoir from your own memory. What I see is that people confuse their family situation with the community and regional or national condition. With this kind of myopia, you get a lot of “In those days everyone…”

Pain can also be an impediment to completing a memoir, and I deal with this issue more in the next question.

One major blocks that affects a number of memoirists is a lack of confidence in their authority to tell their story. Some writers do not feel that they are entitled to give their version of events, or feel that it is someone else’s responsibility. Writers who have this issue need to realize that they have a right to present their own perspective and story. In much of my memoir work, just giving troubled writers the reassurance that they do have the right to tell their story helps a great deal with this problem.
How would you recommend someone writing a memoir should handle subjects which are painful to them or to someone else who may read it?
Painful memories do surface in lifewriting; writing about an experience may relieve that pain. I suggest you approach your pain by writing around it. Like peeling an onion, eventually you'll arrive at the center of your grief— and you'll often find insight and acceptance, too. The process is difficult, but it can be healing.

It's also perfectly okay to decide not to write about difficult experiences— at least for a time. In my memoir tele-classes, I have repeatedly seen writers discover that it takes more energy to avoid a memory than to write about it.
Have there been any memoirs you have assisted with that have shaped the way you perceive the world or the way you go about your craft?
I certainly have been deeply moved by several memoirs of my clients. One, a World War II pilot, had many exciting stories, and another, a woman who lost a daughter to drug use, wrote a very emotionally moving memoirs.

My coaching, editing, and co-authoring has indeed been shaped by the stories of my clients in several ways. I have become more adept at asking the right questions and making the right comments to stimulate the writing, recall, and interpretation of a story. I have become more sensitive to unspoken issues my clients may have and know better how to approach and deal with these matters.
How are memoirs used by families—and on a larger scale—by libraries, museums, or other academic institution today?
Memoirs can be used by families in a number of ways. They offer a record of events and people that have been important or meaningful for the family, can be used to address family issues, and can celebrate or commemorate a special family event.

Many local or state libraries have collections of regional memoirs. These are a rich source of local history and offer the personal element oftentimes lacking in broad-scoped generic texts. Historians generally value the personal perspective and insights offered by memoirs when conducting their research.
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