On Being a Memoirist

Courtesy of Anne Arundel Community College

I envy my novelist friends. Throughout my writing career, I have had to stick with the facts. This began in high school, where I was a sports editor writing about games I and others played. It continued in college, where I was a reporter, and later editor, for an engineering magazine. Throughout four phases of my professional careeras an engineer, a college professor, an entrepreneur CEO, and a venture capitalistI wrote factual technical reports, business plans, memos, and annual reports. Those were my “day jobs.” My writing of nonfiction extended into my then-avocation: newspaper columnist and freelance writer on subjects ranging from skiing and sailing to entrepreneurship.
When I entered the current state of my lifethat of a full-time author of bookswhat genre did I choose? That of memoir. After years of silence, I decided to share my experiences as a “hidden child” living in Europe under Nazi rule and the trauma of coming to grips with my ethnicity and nationality. I wanted to tell my “coming to America” story and to relate tales of entrepreneurial terror, something I am doing now, as sequels to Prague: My Long Journey Home.
Yet, I envy the novelists. In our writers’ group, I listen to my colleagues develop characters, build intriguing plots, and invent conflicts. When they run into dead ends, if their story drags, or when a great idea strikes them in the middle of the night, they simply rewrite the story to make it more interesting for the reader.
As a memoirist, I don’t have the freedom to improve the story. That trite old saying, “it is what it is,” must have been invented by a fellow memoir writer. Oh, sure, I take some liberties with dialogue because I don’t remember exactly what my great-grandfather said to me when I was four years old. However, the meaning and impact of that conversation must be grounded in fact. While I may have to guess at some minute details, the essence of the scene must be true.
So, yes, I do sometime begrudge my novelist friends their freedom from the constraint of truth-telling. I also envy them for their imagination and inventiveness in spinning a great tale. Because I don’t possess that talent, and since some of us have to record events as they really were, I’ll have to stick to writing true stories – as I remember them.


  1. Phil Bundy on March 13, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Terrific photo!

    • Author on March 14, 2012 at 10:46 am

      Thank you! Making sure I represent OSU’s orange, too! 🙂

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