Somewhere in our twilight years, it occurs to us that we have a story that is worth sharing. The truth is, everyone over fifty has a long and colorful history, a veritable goldmine of anecdotes. This is one of the precious few perks of aging – accumulated experience. No one human being can possibly live for half a century or more and say that nothing interesting happened. There are incidents and accidents, depression and jubilation, crazy relatives, road trips, illicit affairs, births, deaths, war, peace, and everything in between to write about.
On a personal note, years ago, I tip-toed nervously into the dating world in my middle-age and began dating gentlemen that were generally over the age of 50. Well, I am a story collector, and first dates were the mother-load for interesting narratives. These initial meetings were so different in character from youthful dating – like fine wine – full-bodied, soulful, “Arabian Nights” – intoxicating! Sadly, the second dates seldom lived up to the promise of the first…but that is another blog, ha ha.
Back to the subject at hand. I began by discussing how relating life stories can go right, but even more interesting are the many ways this can go wrong. In fact, let’s just get down to some bullet points of Do’s and Don’ts:
1. Prepare to write by reading. Read memoirs. Read a dozen. You will find a style that speaks to you. If you enjoy an author’s writing style, others also enjoy it. Try to emulate it. I read my own favorite authors whenever I can.
2. Nix the details. No, it does not matter how much penny-candy cost in 1952 or that the pink building on Main Street used to be a Woolworth’s. Getting bogged down in the minutiae of the past will lose your reader quickly. Keep story and action on the menu.
3. Create a narrative vehicle to carry your story. Sipping cold lemonade on the porch “I remember when-ing” versus languishing in the county jail with a lump on your head and wondering how you got there – hmm, which story would I want to read? Try starting with a present-day drama and working backward.
4. Use imagination in presentation. Doubting your writing abilities? Newsflash, it does not need to be a book. Scrapbook with photos. Draw. Use mixed media, found objects. Finger-paint! Do spoken word poetry – forget rhyming, just freestyle it and gesticulate wildly. Let me tell you, as an active participant in the art scene – anything goes, as long as it is original.
5. Be yourself. Readers are trusting in your authenticity. Keep it reasonably true (with flourishes).
6. Embrace the drama. Conflict sells. Work out your personal junk, and generously forgive the people who caused it. Apologize for causing other peoples’ junk.
1. Don’t focus on where this memoir goes when it is finished. Share it with family, try to publish it, sell the movie rights, hide it in the sock drawer, or throw it in the fireplace. The process of creating this memoir alone is worth years of professional psychoanalysis.
2. If you do plan to go public, don’t dish on the living. Respect the privacy of others or at least change names to protect their identities.
3. Don’t get bogged down trying to write a perfect sentence. It is easy for a writer to get “frozen” by the process and the story won’t flow. Just tell it how you talk.
4. Don’t worry about the order in which your memories appear. Record events as you remember spontaneously, and you can return and order them chronologically later.
5. Don’t make a deadline. Take a relaxed approach to this creative project. If you do have an unavoidable deadline (for which we are all scheduled, unfortunately) have a friend or relative help you get your story down for posterity. If money is not an issue, hire a professional ghostwriter.
6. Above all, don’t leave this firmament without telling us what happened. We are infinitely curious.
Links to some of my favorite creative memoirs: