When I first began writing lifestories and teaching workshops to help others do the same, my emphasis was on preserving family memories and creating a legacy of personal and family history for future generations. That picture gradually enlarged to include documenting your way of life in what will soon be times gone by.
In spite of a growing emphasis on transformational, healing and confessional memoir, historical documentation still serves a valid and important purpose, one that should not get lost in the scramble to bare more psychological skin. Well-written documentary memoir can be both fascinating and thrilling.
British author Ian Mathie is remarkably skilled at this. I read each of his four engrossing volumes of memoir straight through. I was unable to tear my eyes from the page as I read about his experiences during the 1970s in various parts of northern Africa where he worked as a water engineer for an unspecified British Foreign Service agency. Rather than commuting from cities, he preferred to live in remote villages among the people while teaching them to dig reliable wells with natural filtering systems to provide a sustainable, safe water supply. He began schools with native teachers to spread these skills to other areas.
At times he was in the jungle. Other times he was in one desert or another, and occasionally he did live in cities. He encountered witch doctors, tribal chiefs, and ordinary villagers. He was invited to dinner by four different presidents, including Mobutu. He drove all over in Land Rovers, rode trains and camels, and often relied on his small Cessna. He was a genius at working the system.
But these are not books about “The Further Adventures of Ian Mathie.” Despite the fact that his life was indeed filled with constant adventure, the emphasis in his stories is on the people he encountered, the people he came to care so deeply for, his friends for life — which unfortunately wasn't long. Most of those people and cultures were victims of one revolution or another.
The books document lifestyles of people who had highly evolved cultures, ideally adapted to an environment which was already endangered when he lived among them. My understanding and respect for the wisdom of prewestern, native cultures soared, and I expect enthralled anthropology students will be citing Mathie’s accounts in piles of research papers for decades.
Few of us have stories as inherently exotic and powerful as Mathie’s, but even ordinary life can be described in compelling ways and may seem exotic to your offspring in fifty or one hundred years. Imagine how fascinating it would be to read the details of your great-great-grandparents’ lives more than 100 years ago. Even if all mine did was haul in the harvest and milk the cows, I’d love to know how they went about it.
Each of Mathie’s volumes has a different structure, so each has a lesson to teach on how to write as a bonus beyond the amazing content. All four of his volumes are available in print on Amazon. The first, Bride Price, is now also available in all eBook formats as well as text documents on Smashwords, and the other titles will soon follow.
Write now: write a description of your day today (or a recent one of your choosing). Rather than simply listing things calendar style, describe how you did them. Pretend you are writing for someone from 200 years ago and explain what a dishwasher is and how it works. What sort of blankets are on your bed. What does your house look like? What did you do at work if you went there? Fill them in, and tell how you felt about each activity. You may find your days are more interesting than you’d realized!