Got a good life? Got a bad one? Either way, if you’re a boomer, you’ve probably got some stories to tell, and maybe it would help others … and maybe it would help you … to write your memoirs. If you’re interested, Renee Fisher, co-author of Invisible No More: The Secret Lives of Women Over 50, has some advice.
Many Boomers have started to think about writing their memoirs. Usually, they have one of three reasons to do so:
One is posterity. When we left the communal campfires of our ancestors, we stopped telling the stories that were passed down through countless generations. Nowadays, as we age, it’s natural to want to pass down our experiences to children and grandchildren. Most people reveal their lives in bits and pieces, even to loved ones we see on a daily basis.
We might say, “My Dad used to take me fishing sometimes,” when a child points out a fishing rod in a store. Or we might use a childhood experience as a “lesson” for a child or grandchild when a certain situation comes up. While there might be great value in these stories, there is little consistency to any of it. And stories told to our children may not be passed down to our grandchildren. A memoir is a way to leave a legacy.
A second is personal healing. The power of recording the most painful episodes of our lives can’t be stressed enough. Holding onto secrets makes us feel ashamed and allows us no perspective. Even writing one sentence can be liberating. Try it. Think of something you have never spoken of to anyone. Write it down in one sentence or one paragraph or one page. Then tear up the paper. These types of memoirs needn’t be shared with anyone. They are the journey within.
A third is bringing our story to the world. Many people have compelling stories to tell, stories that have the potential of enlightening, fascinating, or healing others. Our memoirs are the gifts we give to people we have never met.
The roadblocks that people encounter when they think of writing a memoir are, I can’t write, or, I have nothing to say. Or I don’t know how to begin. The first is even said by writers. The meaning is, “I can make stories up, and I can write about other people. I don’t know how to write about myself.” The translates as, “My life is ordinary. Who would want to read about it?” The third can either be a mechanics issue or a way to avoid. The point is, none of these statements are real. They are the story we tell ourselves to avoid writing the story.
You can write a memoir. Your life isn’t ordinary. And there are ways to go about this. These statements seem simplistic to people who already write, especially since many people who write blogs talk about themselves all the time. But many blogs are like little bullets of someone’s life experience. And they are sometimes intended to entertain, rather than to reveal. A powerful memoir has a message, one that is conveyed in every experience that is told.
Nothing I know about memoirs is from books. It’s from sitting down with my two co-authors and slogging our way through our own lives. It was all trial and error. A lot of it didn’t work at first draft. But, as time went by, we kept getting better at it. More focused. More authentic. Less self-protective. It’s our honesty that has resonated with readers, not our superb literary skills (casually flipping through the book will be evidence of that). So, for us, the journey went deep into ourselves. And in so doing, we were able to reach a lot of women (and men.) We were lucky. Writing our memoirs gave us something to pass down to children and grandchildren. It healed us. And it brought our stories to others.
So, if you are considering writing a memoir, for healing, for posterity, or for the world to read, here are some steps to get there:
Make a commitment to be honest. This is the most important step of all. Take your defenses and put them somewhere for the time being (maybe in a trunk in the attic.) If you aren’t writing authentically, and you are writing to heal, you won’t be able to heal. If you are writing for posterity or for the world, your readers won’t know you. They will only know some mythical you. And the protected, mythical you isn’t nearly as interesting or of as much value to others as the real you.
Assemble a team. Unless you are writing privately to heal, you need a team. Your team consists of one or more people you trust who will give you honest feedback. You may love someone and they may love you, but if all he or she will say is, “Oh what a wonderful writer you are,” or “Oh you poor thing,” you are better off with someone else on your team. If your team offends you or causes you to go into a self-protective reaction, they are doing their job. It’s all part of the deal. Tell your team you will be sending portions of what you have written to them or will read portions to them on a set schedule. Then, follow the schedule.
Know your message. No matter what your life experiences are, your message is the glue that holds your memoir together. Your life has a message just as a novel has a theme. Don’t start writing without knowing what your message is.
When you do start writing, don’t censor yourself. Every experience you have had has helped shape who you are now. Therefore, rather than just telling the story, look for the good. Look for the learning. Look for the experience. And tell it.
Get rid of the notion that writing your life has to be linear or that you must start at birth. Unless you were born in a manger or were nursed by wolves, it’s not necessary to start with your mother’s labor and delivery or to describe your potty training. Instead, you can do one of the following:
- Write one self-contained episode about your life. Then write another. Then write another. This is without regard to chronological order. You can treat it like a series of short stories or vignettes, but with one unifying message. DON’T think about the big picture. Take one step.
- Write about one episode only and include references to the past in that one episode. Let’s face it, some lives have one huge, overriding event. Give that event the respect it deserves, but know that your reactions to that event have probably been determined in large part by your experiences in life, so you are going to weave those throughout.
- Choose a list of topics and write about each one. That’s how we wrote our first book. Our three lives have been dramatically different, so instead of trying to make anything uniform, we stepped outside ourselves and asked, “What topics are important to women over 50?” As we wrote about each topic, without concentrating on our lives per se, the lives spun out across the pages.
Remember: you control this universe (unlike taxes, other drivers, and the creative things kids decide to do with sharp objects.) It’s your life, your memories, your decisions. If something seems overwhelming, break it down into really small pieces. I led a workshop once where, after writing one sentence, a woman started crying. Clearly, writing that one sentence triggered a story in her that was ready to be told.