Writing an Historical Memoir

by Becky Alexander

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the course of the last five years or so, I have written a number of vignettes about my years growing up in Hespeler, Ontario. These were based on childhood memories of people, places, and events that I wished to share. In seeking out some of these pieces a year or so ago, to submit to a contest, it occurred to me that there was good value in sharing those memories, and in writing more of them.

Small towns across Ontario are disappearing, as they are incorporated into larger demographic clusters, and even the names of these places are disappearing. Such it was for the active town of Hespeler, in 1973, when it became part of the new city called Cambridge.

As I started to write about family and historical events during the halcyon Hespeler days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, more and more memories poured in. This is true of writing: once you write and write, the floodgates open.

It soon became obvious to me that my small stories formed a larger picture of how it was to grow up in a small town, where nearly everyone knew everyone else. I began to research dates, events and timelines, and my collection started to meld into an historical memoir.

As my fingers typed and typed, many thoughts occurred: what do I leave in and what do I leave out? If I recount a tale of one of my relatives, will they be insulted? Will this eventual book cause more trouble than it’s worth? Many mental struggles occurred along the way, and these are the resulting resolutions:

If you choose to write a memoir, tell the truth as you know it. But as Dickinson so aptly writes in one of her poems: Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Each chapter I wrote was based on my personal memory. I soon realized that these memories were not going to be the same for my relatives, friends, and former neighbours. As my best and oldest friend so wisely told me when we were discussing this project, “This is your story, based on your memories, so tell it as you like.”

When a chapter showcased the life of a specific person, I invited that person to read what I had written about them, or, in the case of a deceased person, I asked a surviving relative to read those related parts. Not one of those people was offended by anything I’d written, and many times I was offered further memories and facts about the people of whom I wrote.

Organizing a necessary timeline of events is crucial to the book, and difficult to attain. I was trained as a literary researcher, and those skills helped greatly. With the internet today, we have historic details and facts at our fingertips, but that is not enough. I learned the most about the people and places of whom I was writing by talking to people who knew and remembered them. When I absolutely could not find any printed or recounted facts, dates, or details about a certain story, I went with my best memory: and I said so.

I believe a memoir should present a balance of the good and the bad. We’ve all read memoirs that were nothing more than a series of ‘Poor Me’ complaints. And we’ve probably read ones written through the mystic eye of perfection. Life is not like that: good things happen, terrible things happen, and funny things happen: it is the writer’s job to pick and choose for balance.


Becky Alexander was born and raised in Hespeler, and now lives in the Preston area of Cambridge. She is a poet and prose writer, and runs Craigleigh Press, a micro-publishing company with her husband Dave Allen. Her historical memoir Growing Up (in) Hespeler is planned for a spring 2012 release.

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One response to “Writing an Historical Memoir

  1. flavio, went to St Benedict's and later to GCI in Galt

    I do not agree with you. I also grew up in Hespeler in the 60s and 70s. I remember well. I have had to, leaving Canada in 1980–and never returning except in the way I am, how I act. The problem with many of those with whom I grew up, is that they were not really aware, nor are they now, capable of examining their lives in a socratic way. Who is? Nowadays.
    I grew up in a world that no longer exists, but it was a great world, there and then, in Hespeler, Ontario. Now, I haved lived since 1980 in Spain and Italy. Flavio Ubertino

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