My book project – 1 year in

I started last year with a goal to write a book. Not just any book, but a biographical memoir of my late Father. I have not written a book before, and certainly not anything as complex as an account of another person’s life. Still, it was something I felt compelled to do, and, thanks to the encouragement of my husband, I ‘announced’ to my family what I was doing. That was the first step, and it took some courage.

I had no idea how to go about it. The longest thing I have written, in a long-time, is a blog, like this. That I know how to do. A biography? No idea.

I did some research, I tried to find a guide or how-to manual. There wasn’t one for this kind of book. I have read quite a few biographies and autobiographies, and took my early steps following some of their formulas – start with the background of the person in question, their parentage.

This set me off on a quest to gather together as much information as possible. That done, I started writing, and I soon discovered that for something like this, a biography, written by a close relative – I am not ‘neutral’. I wanted to include my thoughts, my insights, my analysis. I needed to find my voice.

While I have been struggling with the process, I have had moments of wonder. There were characters in my Father’s family tree where information was a bit light, and I had this feeling that it does not tell the whole story if you only talk about the known rather than exploring the unknown.

I took some time to investigate the key characters where I had less information, and I had a few delightful surprises to my enquiries, including responses from the school where my Grandfather attended, including a detailed cricket match report that described his unique left-handed bowling action. I also had replies from the London Transport Museum clarifying the jobs that my Great-grandfather (on my Grandmother’s side) had.

Still, there were serious questions that needed to be asked about one of the principal characters in the piece, my Father’s father. He died when I was 5 so I don’t have many memories of him, and my Father didn’t say too much about him, and his carefully chosen words revealed more in what they didn’t say than what they did.

My natural curiosity kicked in, and I wanted to understand this person, their upbringing, and see them as three-dimensional. I looked closer into his family life, and one discovery led to another, finally bringing me into contact with my late Father’s second cousin, Mandy. She has this last year done a forensic job in researching my grandfather’s family tree, finding the missing link to my South African great-grandmother’s parentage. This was a staggering find, and something my father and his mother had searched for on and off for over 50 years.

On this journey I have had time to properly reflect on precious letters held in the family. Letters written by my great grandfather to his wife, written in the trenches from the Battle of Ladysmith, in South Africa, where the British Army were be-sieged by the Boers for 17 weeks. Letters the same man wrote to his son 25 years later, after he left for Capetown, South Africa to start a new life. Written weekly, they show my great-grandfather’s demise as he gradually becomes ill and eventually writes his final letter, shaky and in pencil.

I still have many unknowns in writing this book. How to weave together lots of information to form a narrative. What to put in, what to leave out. How much detail. What to do where there are gaps. How many chapters. What chapters. How will I actually publish it.

There’s so much still I don’t know. But all I know is that even part-way through, this has been a fascinating project for me, and I have learnt so much.

So, if you have a project in mind, personal or work-related, don’t be put off if it is big and scary. You can chip away at it one step at a time. You can learn as you go. And sometimes the rewards are great before you’ve even reached the finish line.

Leadership Lessons from my father – my goal to write a book

Earlier this year I set myself a task – to write a book about my Dad – and here’s why…

This book has been consciously and sub-consciously in my head for four years, since the death of my father on Christmas Day 2015. Dad was taken ill earlier that year, and had a rapid decline, which took us all by surprise, as he had been in good health prior to that. The things that have come into my mind since then, that I have felt prompted to write, I in fact always felt. It was just somehow with his passing I felt them more keenly. So I have been writing and re-writing much of this book in my head for five years. Indeed I have attempted to capture various elements on paper a few times, and each time I got stuck, as I couldn’t picture the end result, who it would be for, and why anyone would be compelled to read a book about someone else’s father, as for those of us lucky enough to have had a good father, all our fathers are special. So let me tell you where this began in my mind.

In my line of work I have looked after training in organisations, training of all kinds, from the mandatory to the developmental for over 25 years. I have both commissioned and delivered management and leadership training to different teams of senior employees, so attending any training often felt like a busman’s holiday, with me not actually expecting to get too much out of it, as I had usually arranged the day anyway, and knew what was coming on the agenda. I remember one day around 14 years ago, sitting in a conference room with around 20 other senior managers, when our external facilitator for the day gave us a task – to reflect on the greatest leader that had influenced us in our lives. For me it was immediate, I knew that person was my Dad, that I had witnessed many leadership skills and attributes demonstrated by him over the years. What I was not prepared for, however, was my emotional response, and that as soon as I held this thought, I was flooded with emotion and had to pretty much blink back the tears throughout the rest of the day.

Fast forward to my Dad’s passing, and with writing the eulogy for the funeral I felt like I had been entrusted with an important task, to capture the various attributes he had. It was then, recounting the stories and anecdotes with family and friends, that I felt strongly that this chapter should not be closed off and left, and there were powerful lessons in the way he had conducted himself that could and should be shared.

Reading management and leadership literature and ‘keeping up’ with the latest thinking, I have often felt that the particular characteristics that my Dad displayed are unique and deserve exploring. How to do this though is what I have wrestled with. My Dad may not have been considered a great achiever in a worldly or monetary sense, his achievements and leadership transcended across work, church, community and family – that was part of what made him special. To understand his motivations, one needs to understand the family, church and community environment he was operating in. So, in the end I have settled on the most obvious solution, to write a biographical memoir, so it will be there, on permanent record, for Dad’s 25 grandchildren and anyone else that wants to read it. So, while this account is written for family and friends, the leadership lessons I believe are universal and much needed for our day, and I hope that others may be inspired by my Dad’s example.

I am lucky enough to have some good source material to get me started, my Dad kept journals for a couple of years, and wrote an account of his early life. There is also his fishing blog which covered more than fishing, including his end-of-life battle with mesothelioma.

I’ve never written a book before, least of all a biographical memoir, so if anyone knows anyone that has expertise in this area – I would be grateful to have a conversation! Also if you have any stories about my Dad, let me know!