How to Write a Good Memoir (It Helps If You Were Once Targeted by the Unabomber)
Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).
As I’m not a famous politician, movie star, or athlete, people might well wonder how I -- a mere historian and academic -- ended up writing my recently-published autobiography, Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual. In fact, sometimes I wonder about it myself.
The roots of the project can probably be found in the fact that, since childhood, I have always enjoyed stories. This fact played out in my career as an historian -- historians, after all, like anecdotes -- as well as in my development of a range of colorful vignettes about my life that I used on occasion to regale friends or relatives. These included stories about serving as a civil rights volunteer in the South, working as a farm laborer in the West, being tear-gassed as a protester against the Vietnam War, coordinating labor solidarity ventures for my union, fanning the flames of discontent with the Solidarity Singers, and being spied upon by the U.S. government, arrested, and purged from my job for political reasons. Of course, I sometimes mentioned less dramatic -- although professionally satisfying -- developments: receiving major fellowships and awards, being invited to address important international conferences, and presiding over professional associations. But there was lots of drama in other adventures that I recounted at length, ranging from being targeted by the Unabomber to leading the annual nuclear disarmament march through the streets of Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, as members of my parents’ generation began to wither and die, it occurred to me that I had very little knowledge of my family’s past and that, if I wanted to learn something about it, I would have to move quickly to interview aging family members and gather documentation from them. As a result, I made some small-scale efforts along these lines.
Finally, about six years ago, spurred on by the advent of grandchildren (thoroughly unfamiliar with almost all events of the past) and my own drift into old age, I decided that the time had come to pull some of this material together into a family history. Consequently, I sat down and began writing about the lives of my great grandparents and their children in Eastern Europe, the migration of family members to the United States, their assimilation and that of their children, my own Brooklyn boyhood, and my curiously mixed life as a reputable university faculty member/scholar and a considerably more controversial political activist.
While writing, I gradually came to see that this emerging book was much more than a family history, for it raised important issues about what the appropriate role was for Americans -- and particularly intellectuals -- in a society plagued by war and social injustice. My own life had not only roughly corresponded with the rise of American militarism, battles over racial and gender privilege, and fierce struggles over economic inequality, but had been closely intertwined with the peace movement, the racial justice movement, and the labor movement. And this kind of political activism was an important component of the lives of millions of other socially-conscious Americans, as well.
Even so, although there was an important story to tell, I wasn’t quite sure how to put it together. Courses exist on writing memoirs, but, unfortunately, I never took one. Therefore, I was not certain what the right mixture was when it came to interweaving personal items (marriage, family, and friends) with larger political and social concerns. Some people urged me to leave out most of the personal material and focus, instead, on broader issues. But, as an historian, I felt that this would present a distorted picture of my life. Furthermore, it would lead readers to conclude that activists choose a political life over a personal life, whereas the reality is that they usually have both. To take only one example: I was arrested for participating in a sit-in against South African apartheid and I sometimes played tennis with my friends on lazy sunny afternoons. Would either of these, standing alone, provide a satisfactory understanding of my existence? Ultimately, then, in writing the book I just tried to recapture what the texture of my life was like.
Another difficulty lay in finding a publisher. This book was certainly not in the area of my professional strength: historical scholarship. Seven other books of mine had reached print without much difficulty, and I had been an editor or co-editor of another four published tomes. If I had written a new historical monograph, it would have been snapped up quickly by a publisher. But, given their commercial considerations, publishers view memoirs -- especially when the writer is not famous -- as quite another matter. Therefore, I shopped around for some time before a publisher, the University of Tennessee Press, agreed to take a gamble on this unusual book.
Although the format may be a little bit unusual, Working for Peace and Justice does highlight some important issues. One of them is the connection between intellectual and political activity. In my life, the linkage crystallized for me when, during college, I studied the work of the Enlightenment philosophers and other daring intellectuals who believed that reason and knowledge would light the way to a better world. Another point implicit in the book is that numerous possibilities exist for combining intellectual life with activism for social change. Despite my immersion in many scholarly projects – I have served (and still serve) as a national board member of Peace Action (America’s largest peace organization), executive secretary of the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and a leader of numerous comparable organizations. Perhaps most important, the book indicates that blending intellectual activism and social movement activism can lead to a very interesting and exciting life.
Also, I confess, I had a lot of fun writing this book!
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