Documentary Memoir

MathieBooksWhen 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!


KathyPooler said...

Sharon, we can't be reminded enough of the importance of preserving the stories of our times, even, or maybe especially, our mundane, day to day lives. I would devour any tidbit about my ancestors. I will keep that in mind as I work on some of the extraordinary events in my relatively ordinary life story. I am very intrigued by your reviews of Mathie's work. Thanks for the links.

Linda Austin said...

I love memoirs of history and culture! My favorite kind. Recently posted on my blog about the importance of capturing those everyday details. Getting them out of my mother as I wrote her book was like yanking teeth. She insisted no one would be interested in that! Now her book is in university libraries as a resource. You never know...

Sherrey Meyer said...

This makes me think of my husband's comments not long ago about "I wish I knew my dad's stories." I suggested he start writing his down, not so much as memoir but as a "storybook" of how some of his ordinary and not so ordinary days had gone. I daresay his children and grandchildren would love to hear more about growing asparagus and rutabagas, shooting rabbits in Horse Heaven Hills, the excitement of your first car being 1937 Ford convertible and more. We often fail to see the interest in the commonplace, day-to-day stories of life.

Sharon said...

Horse Heaven Hills? How exciting. Not 1% of Americans know where that is, on the plateau south sitting inside the bend as the Columbia River curls around from flowing south, then eastward to do a 180 to its ultimate westward journey. That is indeed a historic area, and it deserves to be commemorated. He might even include a few snippets of history like the fact that wheat was legal tender in Washington Territory for a time, and much of it was grown in the Horse Heave Hills.

Hah! See how story connects us? I became fascinated with those hills during the 19 years we lived in Richland, Wash. along the Columbia north of them.

Your suggestion is solid. I hope he heeds it.

Sharon said...

Thanks for "seconding the motion", Kathy. I do have a journal my paternal grandmother kept the first year she was married. I should post a few pages as an example of bare bones that tell nothing though. The day she began labor to deliver my father she noted, "Took sick about 4 p.m." The next day "Doctor came by. Baby okay." She doesn't even tell if baby was a girl or boy. LOL!