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Memoir dilemma: knowing when to stop

The rhetorical response to the unanswerable has traditionally been to ask “how long is a piece of string?”

An alternative, as recent experience has taught me, would be to comment “how long is a memoir?”

Having decided it was about time the work in progress was wrapped up, the sudden discovery of  another must-follow line of enquiry emerged. And it was too tempting to ignore.

A  report in the Plymouth Journal revealed that a great-great-great-great-grandfather  I had so far blissfully ignored had been swept off the landing stage at the Eddystone Lighthouse off Cornwall’s rugged coast by a freak wave. As the newspaper bluntly put it, he “sunk to rise no more”.

It was a story clearly needing further exploration as his death would inevitably have had a drastic impact on his wife, then eight months pregnant, and  their five  young children. Thus any thoughts of  signing off on the memoir were deferred yet again while these lives were researched.

Within two years 4x great-grandmother was listed as a pauper. With only a teenage son out at work, money was beyond tight.

Eventually, as others came of age, things improved. She took in a lodger (which has overtones of something else as he remained well beyond normal tenancies), secured an annuity and lived in reasonable comfort until the age of seventy-four, even employing a servant in her final years.

It was one more chapter crying out to be included in a book titled Celtic Skeletons.

But still the book could not be completed. That same day an email lobbed from a woman in Minnesota, USA.

She was a complete stranger. At least until I checked the family tree and found her to be not only a cousin but the daughter of a petty crook and long-term prisoner whose terms in and out of gaol and numerous appeals for release I had fully documented along with a home life that could best be described as tumultuous.

And here was his daughter, now about to celebrate her 87th birthday, thanking me for providing her with details of her family’s early years. To which she is adding several memories and personal details. 

It was a bonanza and a bonus for any memoir writer. Which is what makes it an endlessly fascinating and enjoyable field of writing endeavour – and why Celtic Skeletons remains a work in progress.

As long as a piece of string. 

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