Memoir Editing Job of a Lifetime . . . My Dad’s, That Is

by Diane Rush


Diane, about one month old, and DadI have the best editing assignment ever: I’m helping my dad write his memoir. You might think this job could be fraught with various issues, and you’d be right. Suggesting changes to a family member’s creative work can be a delicate endeavor. But obviously, both my dad and I have the same goal in mind, and with a lot of hard work and a bit of humor, we’re progressing just fine.

My dad begins his description of himself with “an old” and follows that with a noun that tells what his Parkinson’s and eighty-five-plus years are dishing out for the day. I explain, “No, Dad, you’re not in your older years, you’re in your wise years.” What a good time for a person to write his or her memoir. He’s easygoing and didn’t mind when I bought a copy of Memoir Writing for Dummies for us to read and told him not to take the title personally. My dad is a great writer and has always tried to stay up on the latest in the computer world.

My first lesson learned was that teaching Track Changes to someone who hasn’t used it before requires more training than I had given. I came to that conclusion when he somehow turned off Track Changes and made all the changes he wanted. Of course, I couldn’t see any of his revisions that way. He used that parental voice that says, “You can do anything you set your mind to” when he told me simply, “You can fix this.” I gained a new appreciation for the Compare function.

What worked best was for me to keep the full manuscript on my computer and for him to start a new blank Word document every day and type just that day’s work into it (he wrote about five hundred to a thousand words each day). Then he emailed me the work he did for the day, and I copied and pasted it into the master manuscript. Via speakerphone, I read the new work back to him out loud. We went over glaring issues together, and then I did the copyediting on my own. Following that same process every day for the past seven months, we came to the last line of the story and ended up with just under seventy thousand words.

High-tech as he is, my dad has a low-tech concept of what he thinks readers will do when they get to a word they don’t know. In my case, I had to wonder while working on his draft how a cog train works and what eosinophils are and who Lyle Hess is. I suggested he provide a brief explanation for words or phrases that might be unknown to the reader. He asked me, “Don’t people just look up words they don’t know?”

“They might if they’re on an e-reader,” I told him. With a little bit of convincing that it isn’t as common anymore for readers to look up new words in a dictionary, he started adding short explanations of troublesome terms.

Some of the best parts of working with him were reading my dad’s wisdom coming through in his stories, hearing his folksy expressions, and laughing at his antics, saying to him, “Dad, you didn’t really do that, did you?” Yes, he did, and to be a respected memoirist, he wrote only what was true. For the parts that taxed his memory, he asked other family members or explained in the text that the details as recounted might not be exact, but the message is correct, or we simply left that part out. We also added a note to readers at the beginning of the book saying that his memories are to the best of his recollection.

A part of the process that was therapeutic for me was the retelling of a part of my life that I missed out on: the family’s yearlong sail through the Bahamas. In my, then, 18 years of wisdom, I told my parents, “Nope, I’m going to stay home and work.” It didn’t take too long to realize that I regretted that decision. Writing that part of the story together was almost as if I got to take the trip after all, and it was one of the most satisfying parts of working on the book.

One of the more difficult aspects of reading a parent’s life story is discovering parts of his or her life you haven’t heard before, the things you didn’t know were happening because you weren’t born yet or were too young. The flip side is that all the pieces finally come together to provide the full story.

We decided that when there were accounts that could be hurtful to the person mentioned, we would change the name of that person. We did that for a few people. We also added a line in the disclaimer at the beginning that said some of the identities had been changed to protect privacy. I believe it made it easier for my dad to write the difficult parts when made-up names were used, as if he were telling someone else’s story.

It was a bit rough for me when he was outlining the last chapter of the book: I didn’t want to hear that there would be a last chapter. I wanted to slow down the process, but he wanted to speed it up. He said he didn’t want to die before the book was finished. I joked that he better not do that, because if he did, I’d have to make up things to finish off the book.

Once we had the full manuscript completed, I gave him an expanded lesson in Track Changes. At that point, I knew he needed to go back through the manuscript on his own, at his own pace, and make the changes he wanted. As he said toward the end of that process, “Well, the good thing about all this writing and rewriting is I’m really figuring out this Word 16 stuff.” And indeed he did.

After more rounds than most copy editors would provide a “regular” client, we had a finished story. Off it went to the cover designer and formatter, and now we wait for the proofs to be ready.

Toward the end of our last proofreading round, before sending the manuscript off, my dad asked me whether we needed to make any more revisions. No, Dad, I thought. Don’t worry about revisions. You’ve led a great life . . . no revisions necessary.


One comment

  • Diane, I could identify with you and your experience. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished working with my longtime friend and mentor (now age 93 and with no surviving siblings) on the last chapter of her autobiography, intended just for her children, nieces, and nephews, and their children. She was reluctant to write it; she didn’t think her story was “anything special.” She had always been a good writer, but she knew the writing process would present additional challenges as a result of a stroke she suffered several years ago. It was now more difficult for her to relate–whether in writing or verbally–the stories archived within her mind.

    But her relatives were insistent, so she conceded and started writing a year ago. She knew how to attach files, so she’d email me a chapter at a time for initial copyediting and cleanup. Because we know each other so well, I was able to surmise what word she really meant when she’d write a similar-sounding word or would substitute “(wrong word)” or “(better word)” within her chapters. Since she didn’t know how to download the copyedited chapter I’d later attach to her email for her review, she’d open, print, and read the attachment, and then we’d discuss it on the phone.

    Now we, too, are in the final throes of birthing a book, and it continues to be a fun and rewarding journey. I’ve assured her that in fact her story IS something special and have expressed my gratitude for the chance to learn more about her this past year. It’s also been my pleasure to reciprocate. After all, as my mentor back in the 1980s, she put me on the path to public speaking, article writing, volunteer leadership, event planning, and even book publishing. And mine is just one of the lives in which she has made such a positive difference. What an honor to know her!

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