On writing one’s memoirs

Image result for pictures of memoirs


In beginning to write on this topic, I must admit to something of a dilemma and a little confusion. I am quite clear about what an autobiography is, as well as a biography and I have read quite a few in each of those categories. What, therefore, is one’s memoirs? And what should one cover when writing one’s memoirs?

Does it cover every aspect of one’s life – no, that has to be a biography. Biographies cover life to death events – and everything in between, often in chronological order. What I am working on is less than everything I have ever done, or the major events anyway. Many of the mundane happenings in my life are of little or no interest to anyone, even my closest family members. I suspect it would be very boring, except for the odd exciting and interesting event.

A special request

Several months ago my eight-year-old grandson was asking me a whole range of questions about when I was young. This probably came from discussions he had in class at school. We have frequent and long conversations on the phone every few days. Because he lives in Sydney, about 1400 kilometres away (or two days’ drive), this is our main means of keeping in touch and getting to know one another. He has been asking plenty of questions about my early days. It was his interest which motivated me to start recording some of my experiences as a child, and as a young person growing up.

Family interest

While the things I am including in my memoirs are of interest primarily to my grandson, there is also the potential for other family members to be interested in reading such a work. I know that my daughter and my son have both expressed an interest, but my five year old granddaughter is probably not there yet. She has too many other things filling her head. She only started school a few weeks ago. There would also be some of my nephews and nieces who might also be interested, and possibly even my brothers. Beyond that, a few odd friends may have a little interest – but they would have to be quite ‘odd’ indeed.

What to include?

The beauty of memoirs, as opposed to an autobiography, is the subject matter which is included. Biographical writing tends to cover the whole range of events in one’s life, with a special emphasis on the major influences and achievements. In memoirs, however, one can ignore some of the otherwise significant periods of a life, and instead focus on some of the minor snippets, incidents and insights which have become memorable to the subject and have somehow had a profound influence on them. Memoirs can be more of a series of isolated snapshots, rather than a broad, panoramic movie. They are reflections and reminiscences rather than all inclusive biographical records.

While have read a few memoirs, biographies and autobiographies in my time, it is a genre I have not really delved into in depth. I recently came across a wonderful resource, a list of the 100 Must Read Memoirs. I am pleased that I have read several of the titles on this list, I have seen the movie of at least one of them, and several others are on my yet-to-read pile of books.


Please feel free to recommend any memoirs, autobiographies or biographers in the comments. I am always looking for more titles to add to that rapidly growing Must Read list, and to that mighty Waiting-to-be-read pile.

Good reading. Happy, productive writing.


Further Reading:

Fiction #49 The Storyteller

Fiction #49 The storyteller

The chatter in the lunch shed at my primary school was noisy without being overbearing. It was the heat that was overbearing. This was an era when air conditioning was almost unheard of, certainly in the rural community where I grew up in the Murray mallee region of South Australia.

‘I need a drink,’ I muttered to anyone who was listening. Sweat made my shirt and shorts clammy and uncomfortable. I took the tin mug from my school bag and walked to the end of the veranda attached to the single classroom. This doubled as a lunch shed, a place to keep our bags on the dozens of hooks hanging on the wall like two rows or upside down question marks. Two low wooden and very splintery benches ran the entire length of the partially enclosed veranda, one against the stone wall and the other against the tin wall opposite.

I reached up to lower the spout of the water bag hanging from the rook. Its canvas sides were darkened by the rain water seeping through. The occasional drip added to the small pool wetting the cement underneath. I filled my mug and took a long swig of cool water. It was far cooler than the rain water from the tank a few steps away.

‘Fill up me mug, too ferret face,’ Rodney demanded. ‘Gotta broken arm so it hurts to get a drink.’

I knew that he could manage very well without my help, but ever since the accident in the cricket game a few weeks ago, he played on everyone’s sympathy. His plaster cast was grubby and tattered top and bottom. I can still remember the crack as the ball hit the bone and broke it. I can still hear him screaming for his mummy, like a two year old in terrible pain, not the bully boy we had grown to know over the last few years.

Rodney swallowed the water without thanking me for helping him. He hung the mug on the first hook on the top row. He always demanded the same hook, punching anyone who violated this unwritten law of the school playground. He wheeled around the corner and headed off down the hill to the oval. He still played cricket despite the fresh memory of his recent accident.

‘Anyone for a story?’ I said as turned to the remaining children in the lunch shed. I knew that Rodney would not return to bother me until the teacher blew his whistle to mark the end of play time. About half a dozen of the younger children still loitered over their cheese or apricot jam sandwiches. All of them nodded enthusiastically.

‘Sit closer together – there next to Peter,’ I instructed. ‘When you are ready I will start the story.’ I reached into my bag for a shoe box. The bottom of the box had been cut out in the shape of a television screen. Television had just started broadcasting in the eastern states but no-one in our community had ever seen a television set, except in glossy pictures in the Woman’s Weekly magazine. Even if there were broadcasts available in our district, none of the farmers in the area could have afforded a set anyway.

‘Is everyone ready?’ I looked at my expectant audience, their eyes wide open and their mouths gaping with half eaten bread crusts, or pieces of apple. I turned one of the dowels stuck through from the top to the bottom of the box. As it turned the attached strip of paper moved like a film strip across the front of the box. A picture I had drawn appeared in the opening and I stopped turning. I started telling my latest story…

‘Once upon a time there lived a…’ I was a firm believer in traditional beginnings. For a few minutes I related the story shown in the picture, before turning the rod again to reveal a new picture. And so the story continued. The young children laughed at the funny parts, gasped at the frightening bits and applauded wildly when I announced the end of the story.

I had just finished the story when Mr. Ewing the teacher came out of the classroom and blew his whistle. For some reason we didn’t have a school bell, and with no mains electricity in the district yet – power was to arrive here some years later – a siren was out of the question. Any meetings at night were conducted using kerosene lanterns.

I was about to pack my story box – my pretend television set – back into my bag when Rodney and the rest of the boys stormed around the corner and into the lunch shed. He raced over to my bag and snatched the box from me.
‘Whatcha got there, ferret face?’ he sneered. ‘You been playing with the little kids again? Cricket not good enough for you?’ He looked at my diorama, peering at the drawings I’d done. ‘You’re a pathetic little mousey worm. This is worse than dog poo.’

‘Give it back, Rodney,’ I protested, ‘that’s mine. No don’t pull it apart.’

He placed his hands on the edges of the box and pulled, ripping the box into two pieces. He then ripped out my careful drawings and ripped them too. I tried to stop him, but he was both taller and stronger and kept it all at arm’s length.
Rodney ran across to the rubbish bin and stuffed my pride and joy into the food scraps.

‘There you are maggot,’ he yelled. ‘I’ve put it in a safe place for you.’

He hadn’t noticed Mr. Ewing coming up behind him. ‘Rodney Henschke. Come with me.’

‘Ye-ow – that hurts teach!’ He screwed up his face as the teacher’s firm grip on his ear took effect. ‘Leg-go of me ear.’

Mr. Ewing dragged the reluctant ear – and its owner – into the shed next to the classroom. This was the woodwork and craft shed. Our teacher fancied himself as a carpenter and gave the boys weekly lessons in the craft. Meanwhile, his wife took the girls in sewing and basket making classes.

‘Stand there!’ he demanded. ‘Not a move.’

Rodney rubbed his sore ear making it even redder. ‘You’ll pay for this Ewing. Wait ‘til my father hears about this.’
‘Then I’d better give you something else to tell your father.’ The teacher had reached into a storage space and had retrieved a yard long piece of dowelling. He lightly tapped the rounded wood into the palm of his hand. ‘Make sure you tell your father everything, about how you teased a fellow student, how you snatched his property from his bag and how you not only destroyed it but disposed of it in the rubbish bin.’ He paused for his words to sink in, gently tapping his palm for effect.

‘You’re not going to…?

‘Yes, Rodney.’

‘But what did I do wrong?’ he whined.

‘Are you deaf as well as stupid?’

‘Don’t call me stupid! I’m not stupid!’ He spat the words out with venom. I watched spellbound and noticed that these words took the normally mild Mr. Ewing by surprise.

The tapping continued while Mr. Ewing considered his options. ‘What I’ve called you is nothing compared with what you called your classmate Thomas.’ The teacher turned to me. ‘Thomas? You okay?’

I nodded and moved a little closer to the open door.

‘Rodney – you need to apologise to Thomas.’

‘I won’t. That weasel stinks like a fox’s bum. He only wants to play with the little kids. He is such a baby.’ For his last word he used a babyish, whinging sound. He thumped his plaster cast down on the bench. Chips came off and fell like confetti to the floor.

‘So – no apology?’

‘Stuff you teach. An’ stuff that baby too.’

‘You leave me with no choice.’ Mr. Ewing caressed the stick in his hand. I noticed how stained his finger tips were. From tamping down his pipe I figured. He was the first person I’d ever know who actually smoked a pipe. I had seen plenty in photos in magazines and books, but not in real life.

‘Whatcha gonna do?’

I noticed Rodney’s eyes narrow into those cunning slits he often displays.

‘Bend over.’

‘What?’ he said, as if he didn’t comprehend this simple instruction.

‘Bend over with your hands on your knees.’ The teacher continued stroking the wood. I momentarily saw a cloud of sadness drift over his craggy face. It was deeply tanned from many hours spent out in the wheat fields of the district. He picked up some extra money in the summer holidays sewing wheat bags for the local farmers. I’d spent several happy days helping him and my father bag sewing.

Rodney backed towards the corner of the shed. Mr. Ewing grabbed him behind the neck, forcing his head down. ‘Bend over with your hands on your knees.’

Finally Rodney, resigned to his fate, complied.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

I watched in horror as the piece of dowelling swung rapidly into contact with Rodney’s buttock. Mr. Ewing straightened up, ran his fingers gently over the wood once more, and replaced it on the rack. The victim backed white-faced against the wall. His lips trembled, a sliver of saliva dribbled to his chin and I thought I detected a hint of tears shimmering in his eyes. In all of our years together in the same class, I’d never known him to be caned, no matter how much he had teased, taunted and annoyed the other children.

As we proceeding back into the silent classroom, I couldn’t help thinking how life with Rodney Henschke had taken a sudden nightmarish turn.

© 2015 Trevor Hampel

All rights reserved.


  • Although I have listed this piece of writing under fiction, some of it is true, based on a real life – mine.
  • This piece was originally written as a warm-up writing exercise.
  • You can read more of my stories here.

Become a professional liar

‘I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t involve lies. If I want the truth, well, I can Google it, can’t I?’

Robert Dessaix at Adelaide Writers Week 2012 March 5th

Fiction writers are, if you think deeply about it, professional liars. Fiction, by definition, is made up out of the imagination of the writer. I know what Dessaix (a prominent Australian writer) is trying to say, albeit somewhat tongue in cheek. The audience’s amused reaction was predictable. He is generally a very entertaining speaker, panellist and a very talented writer.

The interesting thing I find about thinking and talking about fiction is that, although all fiction is imaginary, made up, not true, there is another element at work in sometimes very subtle ways. One could call most fiction a lie, good literature will illuminate truths about the human condition.

And what is truth anyway?

Research and accurate writing

I read an interesting article in a magazine this morning about the importance of research and reflecting this effort in one’s writing. With non-fiction this is a given; without thorough research on the topic, the author’s credibility is at stake. You need to get it right or your readers will dismiss you instantly.

Research in relation to fiction is another matter, went the writer of the article. It was written from the perspective of an editor who has to deal daily with authors who often display sloppy research skills – or none at all. ‘It’s only fiction,’ they whine, ‘so it doesn’t matter if it’s not entirely accurate.’


One small inaccurate historical fact, one misplaced geographical detail, or an innocent cultural gaff can have readers slamming your book down in disgust or throwing it across the room. You need to get it right or your readers will rebel. You may lose a dedicated reader for life, and if you have contact details on your web site, you will get abusive emails.

The simplest of errors that can creep into a story are often innocent and not noticed by most readers. I came across a classic example recently in a novel written by a friend and a writer highly respected in her field. The story was set in the 1870s and the characters sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the protagonist. Instantly this jarred in my mind. This song is a relatively recent composition, I thought. My research has revealed that it was first used in the early 1900s and was first published in 1912 (if my memory is correct). It became part of the popular culture decades later, much later than in the 1870s. [Note to my readers: please correct me if I’m wrong!] I know the author had done meticulous research for her novel, a fictional retelling of an historical event in Australia. This one slipped innocently under her radar – and that of her editor.

It can take just as much time to research a novel as it does to gather material for a non-fiction book, especially if you are setting your story in an unfamiliar location, time in history or culture. I found that research was crucial when writing my children’s novel set in Nepal. I’d been a visitor – a tourist – for about four weeks. Hardly enough time to absorb all the nuances needed to successfully write the story.

The opposite is also true. If you get it right you’ll have readers wanting more. That’s what we all crave, of course.

Good writing.

Review: Taj and the great camel trek

Cover of "Taj and the great camel trek"

Book review:

Rosanne Hawke: Taj and the great camel trek.

Published in 2011 by University of Queensland Press.

Two weeks ago I was privileged to attend the Adelaide launch of Rosanne Hawke’s latest novel. I am becoming addicted to launches of her books; this is the fourth one I’ve attended in three years. As anticipated it was a joyous time of celebration because I know how hard she has struggled with this story over the last 4 years.

The main character, twelve year old Taj, lived in Beltana in outback South Australia in the 1870s. His father is a cameleer and Taj has his own camel Mustara, a character in its own right. In fact, Taj and Mustara have featured in another Hawke book, the picture book Mustara.

Cover of "Mustara"

Taj and Mustara are invited to join explorer Ernest Giles on his second expedition  across Australia from Beltana to Port Augusta and then on to Perth in Western Australia. It is not a journey to be undertaken lightly because much of the territory they planned to cover is desert, for most part uninhabited even by local Aboriginal people. The team accompanying Giles struggle with coming to terms with the isolation, their own feelings of fear,  the harsh environmental conditions and the almost total lack of water. At times, they traversed many hundreds of miles without finding a drop of water. The whole journey has them on the very edge of disaster throughout, giving the reader a sense of the extreme hardships they endured.

While this is a novel, written as fiction and from Taj’s point of view, many of the incidents and characters are based on real events and real people taken from Giles’ own journal and the records in newspapers of the day. Taj himself is a fictitious character which points to the real strength of this book. Rosanne revealed at the launch that this book was originally conceived as non-fiction, but early on in her research and early drafts discovered that fiction was a far more powerful vehicle to tell the story. In this way the author has brought history to life for the reader, a delicate balancing act at the best of times. She has handled the transition with great skill. We see and feel the anxiety of the party through the eyes and emotions of Taj.

Highly recommended reading.


Disclosure: Rosanne was my supervising lecturer when I completed my Master of Arts (Creative Writing) course recently. Apart from being a great friend and an amazing mentor, I gain nothing from promoting her books and the merchandise associated with it. Reviewing her books is just my way of saying ‘thank you, Rosanne.’

Rosanne Hawke and a friend