Author Thomas Cirignano maintains that “each of us is a book waiting to be written.” He adds that the book will result “in a person explained.” Your children and grandchildren may think they have a full explanation of who you are. But, without your memoirs, they will never understand the experiences that have shaped the person they think they know. Until you record the forces that created present-day you, your family will only have a partial picture of the family member they love. Your memoirs should be recorded—not necessarily for publication, but rather—so your loved ones will have a tangible record to share with future generations.
For most seniors, getting started is the hardest part of writing a memoir. But the start need not daunt you. Here are recommendations for gathering your thoughts in the initial writing stages.
- Walk around your old neighborhood
If it’s difficult these days to walk, you can take a mental walk around the streets that were part of your childhood. Make notes on the style of homes, the people who lived in them, the neighborhood oddities (including individuals), the places your family shopped, the schools/places of worship you attended, the spots where you played, et cetera. Talk with your siblings, and/or friends from your youth. You’ll soon have a notebook filled with memories to be edited.
- Look at photos
You probably have a few of your own. If not, you (or a computer-savvy family member) can access photos online from the newspapers of the day. Let the photos stimulate your recall of people, places, and things that constituted your early years. Imagine you are telling a grandchild about the photos and record the most important elements of the voice in your head that is “talking” to a child.
- Research time periods
You may not have or know how to use a computer, but you can still get books from the library or have someone get them for you. Skim a few books that cover the time/times of your life and plan to incorporate that background material into your memoir. It will be interesting for future readers to know the historical elements of the times through which you lived.
- Do a timeline
Make a timeline, marking off every ten years of your life. In other words, the first mark on the line should represent your life from age 1 to age 10; the next, from age 11 to age 20; and so on. Then go back and fill in one or two of the most important events that you can remember from each decade. When you are ready, describe the events in full detail.
- Talk to family members, former neighbors
Not all the memories in your memoir have to come from you. Talk with family members, former neighbors, classmates from those early years, to learn what they remember from the days you spent together. While their recollection might differ somewhat from your own, you’ll have fun discussing those differences. And, since your memoir belongs to you, you can select whichever version you think is closest to the truth of your youth!
- Use the single-word stimulus
One of the easiest ways to gather material for your memoir is to write down a single word, such as “apple.” Then, let thoughts about that word incubate for a while. A few hours or a few days later, try pulling apple-associated memories from your life. If this word fails to stimulate memories, keep going. Our language has over a million words. A few of them are bound to elicit ideas you want to include in your life story.
- Let songs stir memories
While a single word can evoke forgotten experiences, so, too, can songs. The younger members of your family will enjoy learning about songs that may have been popular during the war or songs to which you and your spouse first danced. You might even include details about the singers—Frank Sinatra, for example, and the bobby soxers who thronged him.
- Gather sayings and guiding principles
Few things will be more valuable for your family that having you transmit the values and principles that guided you over your lifetime. Some of those may have come from your own parents. To illustrate, my father used to say, “Your word is your honor.” To this day, I remember that association whenever I make a promise. What are some of the sayings you have lived by? Record them and, if possible, tell the source of those quotes.
- Remember how holidays were celebrated
Online shopping wasn’t always done at Christmas time. Things were very different when you grew up—not just at Christmas time but throughout the holidays of the year. Think about the celebrations you used to have and compare them to the ways in which those special days are celebrated nowadays.
- Reflect on lessons learned over a lifetime
You are a walking compendium of valuable lessons learned through a lifetime of both success and failure, trial and error, poor decisions and wise ones, love earned and lost, problems and their solutions, and so on. Make a list of some of the events that most influenced you. Then, write about the lessons you have learned over the years. You just may help younger readers avoid some of the same mistakes or help them walk in your shoes on the path to a happy and productive life.
THE FUTURE DOORS
Robert Louis Stevenson was 54 when his cousin Graham Greene was born. We may not know the full extent of Stevenson’s influence on Greene, but we do know that he believed “there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” His writing future may easily have been determined by his cousin’s writing. Think about when such a door opened for you and share the revelation in your life story. Know that your memoir just might open the door to a family member’s future.
Dr. Marlene Caroselli writes extensively about education, leadership, self-improvement, and careers and has adjuncted at UCLA and National University. Applying Mr. Albert: 365+ Einstein-Inspired Brain Boosts, her 62nd book, will be released by HRD Press in 2018. Virtually retired, she often addresses seniors like herself on topics of mutual interest.