Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide

Family History: What's Your Story?
Writing Your Memoirs

We've all heard someone say something like: "My uncle Joe was a great storyteller—I only wish he would've written some of those stories down." These days, more and more seniors are doing just that. In these highly mobile times, distance often separates the generations as much as age does, and many folks who are unable to hand down their cherished memories to their younger loved ones by word of mouth are choosing instead to take up pen and paper. Stories serve a broader service as well. As remembrance-writing expert Denis Ledoux says in Turning Memories Into Memoirs, "When you tell your personal and family stories, you are filling a need that exists not only in your family but in the life of the larger human community to receive guidance and reassurance."*

What are some other benefits of writing our personal and family stories? Just as valuable as the passing down of wisdom is simply the joy of both the telling and the receiving; for it is by truthful remembrance, given as a gift to those we love and to others at large, that we allow them to celebrate with us the significant events of our lives and to make acquaintance with the many special people who have shaped and counseled us. Life stories, then, record and preserve people, moments, and places in time too precious to lose. Life stories also help us to better understand ourselves, for as memories grow into stories, which are then collected into memoirs, a person's sense of who he or she has been, and still is, becomes clearer. And while honest remembrance-writing always involves memories of pain and grief, when we begin to write about such memories we discover something miraculous—healing is happening!

Perhaps you've considered writing some of your life stories but don't know where to begin. The task may seem too deep and vast. A handy tool with which to start is an extended topic-list of those persons, events, places, circumstances, crises, milestones, and triumphs that mattered most in shaping you into the person you are. Once begun, such a list will grow long, but its topics will seem increasingly more obvious. For example, consider this list of influential topics—ancestors, parents, early childhood, family attitudes, your youth, your teen-age relationships, starting a family, work experiences, sorrows and heartaches, and so on. Attention to any one of these topics will yield up a treasury of memories, which will lead to at least a few good stories per topic—"good" being for you to decide. As you explore your extended topic list over time, you'll find your stories connecting with each other in wonderful ways. You'll also discover that you've gathered a set of memoirs!

Still hesitant to start writing? Consider that we all have on the tips of our tongues many stories we tell often—those "How about that time when..." stories. "Sometimes these are little more than extended jokes, such as the tales about the family prankster. Usually, though, they center around joy, celebration, and laughter. Because these stories are so close to our hearts, they are also another obvious place to begin a collection of memoirs. They are also easier to write than something entirely new. We've told these stories so many times their tone is smooth and conversational. These are important things for the committed life-story writer to remember later on, when the going gets tough—and it certainly will. We all have an inner critic that tells us that whatever we attempt to write won't be good enough. The inner critic expects from us Pulitzer Prize-winning material. Ignore that nagging voice and remember, as the saying goes, that "nobody ever erected a monument to a critic." What we should hope to shine through in all of our writing, even the tales of tragedy and woe, is our own intimate relationship with the remembered past. After all, the showing of a life lived true to the heart and spoken with an authentic voice will be far more moving and recognizably you than anything you write to prove yourself to the inner critic. It's perfectly fine, then, when contemplating your extended topic list, to begin small. A few lines of remembered conversation, a childhood memory, a word picture of a loved one doing something he or she enjoyed. Any of these little "truth-bites" will move you toward writing longer vignettes, narratives, and full-bodied stories. Often folks take up composing brief narratives—about 50 words—to accompany the pictures in their family photo albums. What a great way to start!

Nothing is more important to the would-be family historian, however, than the encouragement and appreciation of friends, loved ones, and peers. As remembrance-writing seminars and workshops are being offered more frequently these days at churches, senior centers, retirement communities, and funeral homes, why not explore the possibility of joining in? Find some friends, be a friend, and begin writing the stories of your lives together. Every life matters, and you have no idea how many people will treasure a written legacy of yours.

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