Honoring others by helping write their life stories

Last week I learned the Battlefield Doc had passed away. I had been unable to reach him at the Veteran’s Home and my fear had come true. Fortunately, his longtime friend and Power of Attorney was able to be with Doc during his last breaths as he faded gently away from being worn out after 90 years, and being locked into the care home with no visitors allowed had been difficult and lonely for him.

Doc and I worked together for three years turning his notes into a readable memoir, capturing combat and stealth missions and frontline lifesaving experiences from this old “forgotten war.” Even though he was just a few years older than my dad, Doc became my adopted grandfather. Working on that memoir and going on book signings was the highlight of his last years. He felt proud that people—strangers even—wanted to read his stories and then were amazed by them, and he loved reading his Amazon reviews.

Doc got no honors, no medals for his bravery under fire and lifesaving skills thanks to the gruff sergeant at his exit interview who stated “medics don’t deserve any medals, you were doing your job.” Doc himself denied any heroics and had previously kept his military experiences hidden, but he was pleased to finally have his combat service recognized and honored by other than a letter from the president of South Korea. I was the one upset he had not been given any kind of award or medal. Even his records had been destroyed in a big fire at the local military records center.

Working with someone else to help them write their stories is a beautiful way to honor their life. Someone cares enough to ask them questions, someone wants to hear their stories and thinks they are important—important enough that they want to help write them down to save. While they may distrust that the experiences of “common people” are important, you are saving lived history and culture in a way that textbooks cannot do. Not only is that valuable history, it is a gift to the family so they will always know their ancestors and will know their roots and the experiences that helped form them and in turn helped form the next generation.

Taking the time to ask about an older person’s early life—priceless! For both of you.

Rest in well-deserved peace for a life lived well, Doc. We have your stories.

Posted in capturing memories, death, ghostwriting, grandparents, heritage, history, honoring veterans, storytelling | 1 Comment

Memoir Writing – What is the meaning of your stories?

After online church this morning, I was thinking bigger about Jesus as storyteller, as he was the master of parables. Pastor Katie said, “If we look for one clear meaning, we limit the story of ourselves, of God’s kingdom, and possibilities.” In the parables, “a seed is not just a seed.”

What is the meaning of YOUR stories? When we write memoir, we are told to find the message we are trying to get across and stick with that focus, avoiding distracting details and side stories. At my first Zoom presentation the other day on life writing for seniors, I mentioned finding this focus. It may be broad, such as what your childhood was like during that time in history and society. It may be more focused, as how you overcame a certain major difficulty or adventure—the “hero’s journey,” as writers call it. I also told the attendees to just start writing and then see what comes of it, figure out how to organize the stories later—less daunting that way, too.

Memoirs do need to focus and have that raison d’etre, the reason to be. You are leaving a record of your life and personality, but are you also intending to educate about lived history (vs the impersonal broad brushstrokes of textbook nonfiction), to inspire others to persevere through whatever their own difficulties are, to build understanding and empathy for others whose shoes they don’t wear, or to entertain with your funny anecdotes or exciting travel memories—the biggest reasons to write your life. Often more than one, or even all, these reasons can be in one memoir.

Back to the Sunday sermon. You may have an overall message in your mind of what you want readers to get out of your stories, but there is more than one way to “get it.” A seed is not just a seed. A rule of writing, especially for children’s books, is to NEVER TELL THE READER WHAT TO THINK. Tell the story of what happened, but allow space for readers to feel their own reactions and discover their own meanings—not yours. They will enjoy your story more when they can use their own brains as they travel your life with you and make their own discoveries.

Once upon a time, she sowed sunflower seeds…

Storytelling: There is more than one way to “get it”

Posted in lifewriting, memoir writing, writing, writing skills | Leave a comment

Digitizing old slides, looking at old photos—nostalgia hurts!

These memories are not mine so I’m not sure why I am feeling this pain in my heart. I’m re-digitizing a lot of slides from photos my dad took of his youth, his army days, and early days with my mother. Seeing those photos, I think I am mourning my parents’ youth for them—when they first met and life was exciting. And historic. My dad was adventuring in an old Japan that doesn’t exist anymore, and my mother looks so young and preciously beautiful. Her childhood in poverty and war was about to be left behind.

A month or so ago, I finished converting all the slides, identifying and organizing them. I was originally very happy with the Wolverine F2D Titan slide converter, happy to find anything that would quickly convert the boxfuls of slides to high resolution .jpg images. I did my best on all the slides with basic photo editing. Some of these photos I really loved but could not fix very well, and most of the images still retained a yellowy hue or even a pinkish hue instead from my fixing attempts. Recently I had the (literally) bright idea to convert the slides while sitting in my back porch, in normal daylight instead of under the indoor yellow-hued lighting in my dining room. Ta-dah! Some slides would just never turn out good, but many others lost their yellowy hues. Live and learn.

But what’s with this twinge in my heart looking at old photos of my parents—it’s like I deeply miss them, but the “them” in that time of history when I wasn’t even born yet. Their images, these ghosts of the past, are reaching through time and making me feel they are a part of my life history. And well, they are! So this is how I will explain my weird, painful nostalgia for their old days. Somehow I was there.

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