Vicarious Living ... and Writing
Updated: Mar 19
This is the cover of a book I worked on for three siblings.
It’s a book on their mother, Leila. We spent what would have been Leila’s 100th year, meeting whenever we could. It was an eventful year, punctuated with weddings, births, travels, niggling health stuff... Through it all, the book offered a reason for Leila’s children to meet, to remember her, and recall their memories. The cover is my favourite. It was an easy one to choose - it features Leila as a young woman trying a camera, an uncommon gadget at that time. It's a “selfie” from long before that word was coined. I like her look of happy discovery and delight. It sums up the person I got to know from how her children’s memories, a woman who was ahead of her times.
If there’s a favourite among writing projects for me, it's personal histories. These are usually autobiographies or first person accounts that I ghostwrite or help structure and nudge into shape. The reason I like them is a primal one - I get to listen to stories, a peek into another’s life, a most wonderfully vicarious experience.
I am currently working on a personal history of a gentleman who celebrates a milestone this year - 50 years in business. As I listen to him, I am reminded, once again, of how much richness there is in our lives. The value in a personal history project, I feel, lies in the journey one makes, of remembering the past in the company of an interested listener. To see their life transform into a book - that’s an added bonus.
The first personal history I worked on was for a lady who started an NGO in Bangalore. The initial conversations we had were difficult. Every meeting was emotionally charged. I was also inexperienced and uncomfortable with asking very personal questions. We had a break of six months as she lived abroad and visited India for five weeks twice a year. We kept in touch over email, a few stray conversations, not really discussing ‘the book’. On her next visit, we were both readier, more trusting as we dived into the book. For me, it was also a writing school of sorts. I learnt to work with a protagonist, map plot arcs from life events, tug isolated incidents into the narrative, listen closely to reproduce a voice, and to construct a book.
These days, I enjoy personal histories simply for the opportunity it offers me. I enjoy helping people write their life stories. I enjoy digressing in search of dusty remembrances. I no longer worry about memories that may tumble out, that maybe better left locked away in the deep recesses of our mind. Because, over the years, I have come to trust that we have it in us to make peace with the past.
And yes, sometimes, I am entrusted with secrets. A rare few choose to unburden themselves but more often, it spills out before one can stop oneself. I try and forget them as quickly as I can, reminding myself that I am a writer, not a therapist. I may have permission to be nosey but not to judge or offer advice or worse, opinion. Mine is the happier job of getting to listen, and then tell a story.