It’s called learning by experience. Most of us get to a point where we regret that we didn’t ask our parents and grandparents more questions about their families and about what life was like when they were young. So now, we are determined to write our own stories as a legacy to our children and grandchildren, so they won’t be left wishing they had likewise asked us more.
The question is, how do you actually get those stories down in print.
It’s a question that Elizabeth Johnston, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal is used to hearing, because she also teaches life-story writing at a seniors’ community centre in Montreal.
Perhaps the best start, she says, isn’t to pick up a pen.
Instead, agrees Sid Tafler, author of the memoir, Us and Them, and an instructor for a memoir writing class at the Metchosin Summer Arts Institute on Vancouver Island, begin by thinking more clearly about exactly why you want to write. Writing can do a lot more for you than simply recording your memories, he points out. Many people write for the sense of accomplishment, for example, or for self-expression.
And while it may not be the initial motivation, some people find writing their life story to be very therapeutic, says Claudia Cornwall, author of the memoir, Letter From Vienna, who teaches an online course in memoir writing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “I’ve seen people come to grips with a difficult past by writing about it,” Cornwall says. “It helps you to sort things out, to get it clearer in your own mind.”
Even if your past isn’t as difficult as that, however, you will find yourself asking questions that you may not have asked before, and you will likely end up with a new set of deeper, more relevant perspectives on the past and present.
Of course, other writers have their eyes on glory. They want their memoir to be the next bestseller like Frank McCourt’s, Angela’s Ashes.
Whether you are writing for yourself, your family or the public, Tafler encourages his students to ask themselves: “What is my story?” He says you need to focus on the narrative that you are going to shape your story around and leave out the other 99 per cent of the things you did.
But what should that focus be? Ironically, you will probably have to start writing in order to figure that out. Themes commonly emerge after you start, Tafler says. “Sometimes the story isn’t the one you thought it was.”
Like a fairy tale, a memoir generally follows a classic pattern, continues Tafler. It has a beginning which is the problem, the middle which is the struggle, and the ending which is the resolution.
Feeling overwhelmed is one of the biggest roadblocks for those who want to document their story, but there are many ways to make the project more manageable, such as breaking it into chunks. Remember, Johnston recommends, that you are writing a memoir, not an autobiography. An autobiography is the story of your entire life up to this point. A memoir is a slice of it.
Sometimes a lack of confidence keeps people from writing their life story. Johnston recommends writing the story without worrying about spelling or grammar. “Turn your internal editor off while you write your first draft,” she says. “You can always get help with grammar and spelling later if you need to.”
If your audience is your family, you don’t have to be a great writer, adds Cornwall. “They will appreciate having it no matter what.”
However, Tafler adds that if you want people to read it, you owe it to yourself and to them to do the best job you can. He assures his students they will get better with practice, so the best way to get better is to “just do it.”
Perhaps you should be prepared to do multiple revisions, adds Cornwall. Even really good writers revise their work several times, she says. Read it out loud, or get someone else to read it. He or she can point out where things are unclear, she says.
And while it’s important to be as honest and truthful as you can be, it’s important to remember a memoir is somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, says Tafler. “You are recreating a story and recreating dialogue. It’s also your story, told from your own perspective.” Someone else might remember things differently or assign a different meaning to the events. But be cautious when writing about other people’s flaws, says Cornwall. If what you are writing about others could be perceived as negative, it can cause hard feelings, she says.
Tafler adds that it’s important to include your own flaws, the things you’re ashamed of. “That’s part of the story,” he says.
Cornwall likes to start by gathering documents or other objects that will serve as inspiration. A diary, a letter, a photograph, a passport, a ticket stub or a piece of music can serve as springboards for telling your story.
Creating a timeline can be another way to jump-start your memory and help you organize your story. Where do you want to start your story? When you finished school? When you got married? Bought your first farm?
Also explore the senses to add detail. What colour was that dress? How did it feel? How did things smell?
Then approach your motivations. How did you feel? What prompted the decisions you made?
Making a list is another way to generate ideas and get unstuck. Some of the lists you could make include: people who have influenced you, turning points in your life, moments when you were afraid, happiest moments, world events that impacted you, places you have travelled, childhood events that stand out in your memory, character traits you have inherited from family members, regrets, funniest things that happened to you, what are you most proud of, or lessons learned.
If you’re still having trouble making progress on your memoir, both Johnston and Cornwall suggest joining a class. Having weekly deadlines will help keep you on track, says Cornwall. Participating in a class helps you keep up the momentum, and you will find you get inspired by what others in the class say and do, adds Johnston. Check your local community college, university, community arts group, library or community centres for courses.
If you’d like to document more of your family history, you’re not limited to writing. You could use a voice recorder or video recorder to record you telling the story. Or you can use software such as Dragon Dictation to convert your voice to text.
Annotated recipes can tell a story too. For instance, you can share Aunt Mary’s famous recipe for apple pie along with a description of Aunt Mary.
An annotated photo album is also a good way to document family and farm history. Add captions to explain old photos: who is in the photo, where and when was the photo taken and what are they doing. Too often people inherit photographs but they don’t know who or what they are of, says Cornwall.
There are many resources available to help you record your story and farm history. There’s no time like the present to create a legacy that your family will treasure. Remember, our experts say, you are the only one who can tell your story.
Books that help
These books will help you get organized and structure your memoir.
- Inventing the Truth: The art and craft of memoir by William Zinsser
- How to Write your Life Story: The complete guide to creating a personal memoir by Karen Ulrich
- Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer
Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts, Victoria, B.C.
The Memoir: The Story Only You Can Tell
Conestoga College, Kitchener, Ont.
Write Your Life Story
Online Course, Simon Fraser University,
How to Write a Family Memoir