For a fascinating look into one memoirist’s creative process, check out Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by Pamela Smith Hill.
You might know of Laura Ingalls Wilder through her Little House series, eight children’s and youth adult novels set in late 19th century frontier America. I read those books voraciously and repeatedly beginning when I was in fourth grade. I fell in love with little Half Pint, I mourned when sister Mary lost her sight, I shivered when her family endured the long winter, I was sorry when Pa gave up going west and I fell in love with heroic Almanzo, too.
Wilder’s fictional novels were based on her own life. Her first draft was Pioneer Girl, a historically correct memoir of her childhood written in first person; she tried to sell but couldn’t so she ended up drawing on her experiences to write eight third-person novels. Pioneer Girl was had not been published until Hill brought the original handwritten notebooks back to life and annotated everything from who’s-who census facts, period details about wildlife, weather and fashion, and comparisons of Pioneer Girl to the published novels and other writings.
This book is not for the faint-hearted. It’s big — 10-by-10 inches by 1.5 inches thick and 400 pages. It contains 125 images, eight maps, Wilder’s story from birth to marriage (which evolved into eight novels) plus hundreds of Hill’s very complete and detailed annotations. But avid Little House fans will love it.
I hung on nearly every word. Hill’s cultivation of facts is compelling in many ways, not the least of which is way memory fails us. Repeatedly, Wilder would write one thing as fact, and Hill would find census data or newspaper stories that illuminated or sometimes contradicted Wilder’s memories (for example, she lived a lot closer to Independence, Missouri in Little House on the Prairie than she portrayed). Wilder also chose to eliminate an entire sad episode of her life in Burr Oak, Iowa from her fictionalized stories. As a reader and a writer, I found this riveting.
But most importantly for the everyman memoirist, reading Pioneer Girl was an education in how to tell the stories of one’s life in a compelling way. Wilder sat down with a pencil and a pile of notebooks, and mined her “typical” life for compelling reading. Which leads me to believe other people — maybe you, maybe me — can do this, too.