Elders hold treasure troves of experience and insight in their memories. Celebrating and honoring your life by remembering and writing both big and small stories is very rewarding. It is a significant way to understand your life and to come to peace with it. Your memoirs are a legacy your family will treasure for generations–don’t you wish your grandparents had written their memoirs?
Follow these simple writing suggestions and you’ll find the task of preserving your stories is well underway.
1. First, make a Memory List, a list of all your life’s important events and relationships. Your Memory List can have hundreds of items. When you sit down to write a story, you’ll have this list of topics handy. The Memory List helps you to focus on things that deserve the most attention. It also primes the pump of memory: the more you write, the more you’ll remember. Your list will grow as you write! At first just jot things down. As the list gets longer, organize it chronologically. With your Memory List handy to write from, you will never again suffer from “writer’s block!”
2. Start anywhere you feel like starting. Choose your most important or interesting Memory List item. Write anything you want to about it. Resist the urge to write “from the beginning.” Instead, write whatever you want and put it into chronological order later. The most important step in lifewriting is to start writing. Concentrate on one story at a time, not on your life as a whole. Remember: inch by inch, it’s a cinch! Yard by yard, it’s hard!
3. Use all the props you can: letters, diaries, obituaries, photos, newspaper articles, etc. You might just not be as much of an expert on your own lifestory as you thing–memory can be tricky!–so interview people who were there to crosscheck your facts and dates. Research your locale, your region, the era, history, etc., to give authenticity and context to the personal story you tell. Add a lot of general ingredients to season your personal stories! (For instance, “In those days, most Swedish immigrants did… My great grandfather must have done the same thing, too.”)
4. Tell the truth. You and your roots are okay no matter what. You don’t need to prove your worth, improve on the true story, or be afraid to reveal your past. Lifewriting is an exploration, a celebration, not an occasion to get even with people, or to alter things. At the same time, you also have a right to your privacy. It may be growthful to tell the truth about a certain event, but it’s perfectly okay to be selective about what stories–if any–you share with others. Your stories may be written but they don’t all need not be made public! You can write just for yourself some or all of the time.
5. Always be specific. Use proper names, give dates, describe in detail. You can’t give too many details! Don’t use vague or general adjectives or adverbs. (What does “nice” mean?) Use all five of your senses to help the reader see, smell, touch, hear, and even taste the moment as it was lived. Remember: Show, don’t tell. Present your story with specific action, dialog, and setting.
6. Set a schedule for yourself. Honor your writing time as you would any important appointment. (Ask your family to support this commitment, if necessary.) Writing regularly is more important than writing for long periods at one sitting. Marathon sessions with long spells between won’t help you to establish the habits or gain the satisfactions of writing the way frequent, shorter sessions will. Create the props you need to support your new creative project: a writing desk, a cup of coffee, photo albums close by, quiet time, a writing buddy who is also writing lifestories. Above all, be patient and enjoy yourself. Writing your stories is a valuable activity to invest in, a wonderful way to celebrate your life.