How to Write a Memoir, from the author of An Icelandic Memoir [Guest Post]

How I wrote Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir

When I told stories of my travel adventures to friends, their reaction was often, “Why don’t you write your memoir?”  I never thought I was important enough to do that.  At the same time, I did have many fond and exciting memories of growing up in Iceland and later traveling the world for both work and pleasure.  So, I started jotting down memorable recollections and saving them in a folder called Episodes on my hard drive.  

Sverrir Sigurdsson and his wife and coauthor, Veronica Li

In my retirement, after I’d done everything I ever wanted to do, including designing and building a house with my own hands, I got more serious about writing down my memories.  I now live in the U.S. and am watching my all-American grandson grow up with little knowledge of his heritage.  The desire to leave him a cultural legacy became more urgent.

I showed a few of my “episodes” to my wife for feedback.  Veronica is a former journalist and published author who had taken a “Glad he has something to occupy him in his retirement” attitude toward my project.  But one day, she looked up from reading one of my episodes and said, “Sverrir, you’ve really had an interesting life.”  From then on, my project became hers too.

The first step was to decide on a focus.  This was easy as we both knew what I was about.  The theme would be my life as a modern-day Viking, journeying far and wide like my forefathers.  The memoir would begin with my childhood in Iceland, which shaped my outward-looking worldview.

A memoirist is supposed to depend mostly on his memory.  But as I started to write my memoir, I felt what was stored in my brain wasn’t enough.  To get to the bottom of who I was, I needed to burrow into the consciousness of the people I came from.  

My dad had researched the family tree of my maternal grandmother and traced it all the way to our ancestors who lived in Sognefjord, Norway in the late seventh century.  In other words, I’m a descendant of the original Vikings who left Norway for Iceland in protest over King Harald the Beautiful Hair’s efforts to unify the country.  My ancestral pantheon includes Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson the explorer.  But names alone weren’t enough; I wanted to know some of these people, how they lived, what they did in life, and what they were made of.  

I dug into my grandparents’ stories.  My maternal grandmother was no stranger to me as she lived with my family until she died.  She was as gentle as a lamb, but she had to have the heart of a lioness to face down a horrendous family tragedy and continue to raise her four other children.  Her husband and first-born son went down with their fishing vessel during a storm.  Their remains were never found.

Since I was located in the US, I was worried that accessing material for my memoirs might pose a challenge.  To my delight, the internet brought the universe to my fingertips.  While browsing the online catalogue of the Icelandic National Library, my uncle Óli’s name appeared in a cultural heritage project conducted by the library some years ago.  I emailed the librarian, who promptly sent me the files of his interview.   I clicked on one, and there was my long-dead uncle speaking to me in his gravelly voice.  His words fill five hours of recording, painting vivid pictures of the hard life of Icelandic fishermen in the first half of the 20th century.

From the foundation of my family history, I launched my personal story.  But I soon realized I couldn’t talk about my childhood without mentioning the milestone events around me.  They say Iceland was discovered twice, the first time by Norwegian Vikings who settled on the island in 874 A.D., and the second time by the Allies during the Second World War. As German troops pushed west, Britain, Canada, and the U.S. realized the strategic importance of Iceland, located right in the middle of the North Atlantic. They invaded the country to pre-empt the Germans from using it as a stepping stone to North America.  This happened during the first five years of my life.  

Witnessing the Second World War from my backyard made me aware of a bigger world outside of my little island.  The writing was on the wall—I would travel.  Modern-day Vikings, however, no longer voyage to loot and plunder but to learn, study, and contribute on the global stage.  Thus, at nineteen, I went to Finland to study architecture.  After graduating I pursued an international career that took me to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S.  My assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries.  

Bildudalur: a fishing village in Northwest Iceland and hometown of Sverrir’s grandfather

During my travels, I discovered that the renaissance wasn’t happening only in Iceland.  It was taking place all over the globe—war-torn countries were rebuilt and a plethora of European colonies in Africa and elsewhere declared independence.  A new postwar order based on cooperation and the equality of nations was forming.  I was fortunate to participate in this movement through my work with the World Bank, the largest institution for international development.  Although civil wars flared up here and there, and the Cold War triggered harrowing danger points, human civilization continued to advance, having avoided a third big war, so far.  This postwar era is truly a golden age.  Unfortunately, the challenges we face today have tarnished the shine, and the only way to restore it is for nations to join forces once again.

My memoir records the highlights of my adventures, reflecting my personal growth and the diverse cultures and history of the people I worked with.  They say travel broadens the mind.  For me, it also has also stretched my potential, strengthened my character, and enriched my life.  I have indeed found my fortune.

Viking Voyage: An Icelandic Memoir is available at getbook.at/VikingVoyager

Published by Kelly Schuknecht

Kelly Schuknecht is a marketing director with a background in the publishing industry and a passion for all things related to books. She blogs about book marketing because she loves helping authors navigate the world of social media to discover new ways to promote and sell their books. If you're looking for something good to read, you can find Kelly's top picks here: www.kellyschuknecht.com/book-faves.

3 thoughts on “How to Write a Memoir, from the author of An Icelandic Memoir [Guest Post]

  1. An interesting and insightful account of “how you did it”! Well done, Sverrir! Many people — including me — must be pleased that you dedicated the time to write this memoir. Well done, Kelly, for posting this.

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