“99.9 percent of people lead boring lives. But every single one of them is trying to make some sense out of his or her existence, to find some meaning in the world, and therein lies the value and opportunity of memoir.” So goes a January 09 Reader’s Digest article entitled Great Tips on How to Write Your Memoir. This is a wonderful piece that includes anecdotes from Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) and comments by Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle) who says, “I’m constantly urging people, especially older folks, to write about their lives.”
As the article says, you don’t need trauma, misery, abuse, war to make your life interesting. I am working on a short memoir of the early lives of an elderly couple, 90+ year old neighbors with everyday stories that play out like a movie set in “the old days.” They entertained me with tales of jumping on “bag swings,” swimming down the street in a stream of water from a draining swimming pool, walking miles to get home. They described small town life during the Depression years, what New York’s 42nd street was like on VJ Day. They are living history, life and times from the 1920’s on.
For most people, lifewriting means writing down the facts of one’s life. While in itself interesting, that’s more like a textbook of your life, not a story. Beyond the facts and events, what really makes a story is the extra dimension of personality, putting yourself into it with feeling – and you do have some feelings about your life stories, don’t you? Turning a series of stories into memoir involves working those stories into a bigger picture involving reflection, growth, a message, a meaning, your “takeaway.” What impact did these facts and experiences have on you? They may have been everyday experiences, but your spin on them reveals who you were, who you became.
My neighbors may not realize it yet from the first draft in their hands, but there is a theme that runs through their stories and a philosophy of life that shows through. Their life stories will easily turn into a memoir. My job now is to ask more questions, to use the draft to draw out more history, more stories, more thoughts and feelings. Memoir writing to me is like playing the 50-questions game about every draft paragraph, except yes/no questions aren’t allowed. The goal is to create a three-dimensional person. After all, you want to let your great, great, great grandchildren know who you were, not just what you did.