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Maybe the hardest — certainly the most important — thing to learn about writing memoir:

The then and now of it.

When you’re going through an experience, you’re pretty innocent. You might get slivered glimpses of insight, but mostly you’re just trying to manage day-to-day.

Then, years pass, and you decide to write a memoir. You’re more experienced, maybe even more mature. At the very least, you have the advantage of time. You lean back, stroke your chin, understand the significance — even start to be hardened to the emotional impact – of what you’ve lived to tell about. Because you want to move gracefully from the actual memory, to insights you had then, to honest questioning, to insights you have now. You’re seeking a balance between the then and the now, through a braiding of the two, a jumping back and forth, or a steady progression. Regardless of the form you use, your mission is to show growth and change.

My older sister and I fought when we were in our thirties and both our parents were dying. At the time I thought Brenda was being bossy, wrongheaded. I saw myself as wimpy, not strong enough to stand up to her (even when I was standing up to her). Years later, I began writing a memoir about our close but complicated relationship. As I dug into the two years we were barely speaking, I came to realize we were both devastated over losing our parents and just wanted the other to take away the pain. Make me feel better, Brenda. Make me feel better, Judy. When neither of us could, we turned on each other.

The naiveté of then. The perspective of now. Important in memoir. Heck, important in life.


  • Tammy Wilson says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Judy. Sibling relationships are a complicated lot, but time is a great healer. Historians consider 25 years as a minimum time span to adequately reflect and interpret an event. Sadly, some will never have such luxury.

    Your piece sheds new light on an important benefit of growing older. Age is an asset for writing!

  • Judy says:

    Tammy, thanks for your thoughts. You said some good things. Sometimes it takes a lot more than 25 years to gain any insight after an experience!

  • Melissa Schropp says:

    The gift of hindsight. I have two sisters, and we lost our mom just after Christmas. What a journey it’s been — some rough patches as we all dealt with it in our different ways, some of us wanting to quickly move thru things and some of us wanting to dwell. We’re still transitioning, and I’m finding out that birth order issues really never change! Looking forward to reading your book! I just read and recommend an interesting little book about how time can change our perception of past events, called “The Sense of An Ending” by Julian Barnes.

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Melissa, thanks for writing. Yes, I do know how siblings have to keep adjusting when family patterns shift, especially after the loss of a parent. My heart goes out to your whole family. I loved Julian Barnes’ book, by the way. So many interesting insights to ponder.

  • ellie katz says:

    Reading u now. Found ur swb that we got years ago when we were in charlotte. Sorry it took until the tv went out yesterday to read u. A lot of memories return. Henrys mom was a sweet friend. Best to the rest. Hope all well. Henry stoll hsve his red hair. We r well here in roswell ga. Ellie n ron katz