Leaving our stories behind — writing a memoir

Leaving our stories behind — writing a memoir

Sidney Schonfeld wanted to leave a message for his children.

The 84-year-old Tenafly resident had a lot to tell his son and daughter — beginning with his birth in Germany and his subsequent flight to escape the Holocaust and embracing his lifelong commitment to Jewish communal organizations.

With the assistance of a Canadian company that helps people write their memoirs, Schonfeld collected his stories, compiling them in a book called "A Good Name: My Life’s Journey." After almost two years of work, Schonfeld finished the 151-page memoir late last year and printed ’50 copies for his family and friends.

For Schonfeld, the memoir is not only a recollection of his life but also an expression of gratitude.

"I came [to America] at the age of 1′, spoke two words of English — yes and no — and often got those two mixed up," he said. "Consequently, I have a lot to be grateful for, and I’m trying to tell this to my community and friends."

Writing self-published memoirs has become increasingly popular, with classes held at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and at genealogical societies around the area.

Novelist Susan Dworkin, who teaches a class at the Kaplen JCC on autobiographical writing, said that the first step in writing an autobiography is deciding whom to write for.

"Do you want to write for your great-grandchildren? Is this a family memoir? Is this a personal confession? Is this a historical memoir that needs to go into public libraries and footnotes of academic papers? Everything depends on that decision," she said, "whether you’re writing personal history or public history."

As much as Schonfeld’s book is a retelling of his life, it is also a tribute to his wife, Hildegard, who is the subject of her own chapter. When she died eight years ago, she left no records of her life’s experiences, Schonfeld said.

"My mourning period is not over," he said. "If ever there was a woman of valor, Hildegard Schonfeld was that woman."

To help the people in a memoir become more real to the reader, Ridgewood resident Susan Amsterdam recommended including a family tree. Most importantly, she said, the writer must include anecdotes about the people.

"For me, the most interesting thing is the stories," said Amsterdam, who works in Passaic County Community College’s cultural affairs department and speaks to various community organizations about memoir writing. "They make the reader feel they’re meeting these far-flung relatives [and they] make them want to think of them not just as historical characters but as real people."

Once the question of "who" is settled, writers must decide on the "what," said Dworkin, who advises writers to include small details about the times, such as pop culture trends or even how the authors decorated their homes.

"What is old hat to us is fantastically exotic to our grandchildren," Dworkin said. "For example, [growing up] we never locked our doors. All our pots were cast iron. We ground fish in a cast iron meat grinder that attached to the end of the counter."

But, cautioned Amsterdam, while trying to remember every detail, many writers make the mistake of rambling.

"I emphasize that people should start out, before they do any writing at all, by clarifying their thoughts," said Amsterdam. "Why are you doing it? Then you can decide on which family members to focus on."

The "why" is an important part of the process, Dworkin said.

"Most people want to write something that will be a living memoir in the family and give future generations a real example of what happened in the family," Dworkin said.

Schonfeld used the Vancouver-based company Echo Memoirs to self-publish his book. For a fee, the company’s staff interviews the main subject and ancillary sources, collects photos and memorabilia, then publishes the number of bound books requested. Schonfeld’s book is not available for sale, but he has received numerous requests for copies.

"I’m shocked by the amount of calls I’m getting from people who want a copy of the book," he said. "I feel very rewarded for having written a book and having such a wonderful response."

Amsterdam, who wrote up her memoirs in 1997 when self-publishing had not yet become popular, had only ‘5 spiral-bound copies of her book made. While a published book looks impressive, she said, it is not a plausible choice for most memoir writers.

"Unless there’s something really unusual about their story, it’s not going to be published," she said. "It’s highly unlikely anybody’s going to pay them to do it. But self-publishing is a wonderful thing. Anybody in your immediate circle is going to love it."

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