Recently, I presented a mini-talk about writing memoir at a Death Café. The event was held at an assisted living complex, so I knew that most of the attendees would be seniors—people with a lot of life behind them and, therefore, a lot of stories to tell. My presentation was meant to inspire folks to put pen to paper and tell something about themselves, something that might, in turn, inspire their loved ones when they are gone.
Some people think their own lives are not important enough or fascinating enough to be written about. In her book The Memoir Project, Marion Roach Smith quoted the novelist Flannery O’Connor as having said, “Anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write for the rest of her life.” Everyone has a story in them, and we all love a good story.
In our modern culture, we don’t sit around a fire and repeat the tales of our ancestors. Many of us are no longer members of a nuclear family or tight community, and the effect of not belonging to such a group is that we are isolated as individuals. We don’t feel related. We don’t get to know each other as well as our forebears did, and—social media aside—we are not known in that familiar sense.
Writing memoir is a way to be known by other members of the human family. Writing your story on paper or in a computer file creates a legacy that can live on after you. An “ethical will” is a format that leaves something greater than mere possessions and wealth to your descendents. It is a statement of your values and beliefs, an attempt to summarize your experiences and share what your life has been about.
Roach Smith also says, “Writing memoir is about telling the truth.” Naturally, our memories are not perfect, and our perceptions are always skewed by circumstances and opinions and dearly held beliefs. Still, your responsibility is to write your life the way you remember it. Write about the feelings you had and the sensations you felt and the decisions you made at the time things happened to you. Let it all come out. The emphasis here is on the telling—the sharing of who you are, recounting your very personal, unique, never-to-be-reproduced-by-anyone-else story.
The very process of writing causes memories to bubble up through your consciousness. Writing can give you new insights and clarity about how and why things happened the way they did, and what it all means. Writing helps you to connect the dots. When you write your truth, you not only learn from the process, but you also contribute your valued perspective to others—which is what relatedness is all about.
I have the privilege of leading a memoir writing group at our local oncology support house. We meet every Friday afternoon to delve into our memories and put them into words. Joining such a group can give you a structure to work with, in case you need a little prodding and inspiration. Sharing your work with others and listening to their recollections actually does bolster courage. You might find a writing group at your local library or book store.
This is how you begin: Buy a cheap spiral notebook—nothing too precious—and a pen that feels good in your hand. Or open a blank page on your laptop. Turn on some pleasant background music, if you like. Think about one day, one person from your past, one incident. Now tell us a story.