I recently read a small book espousing a start entirely different from what I have suggested, so here for your consideration, are ideas from Immortalize Your Life by Marc Van Buskirk. He recommends starting with your earliest memories and writing, decade by decade, the highlights of each ten years. Throughout the (brief) book, the author gives illustrations from his own book and suggests that you duplicate them. “All you have to do is change the time, places, people, things, and events.”
By all means use this approach if it works for you. There is no one way to start writing about your life. Based on the experience of helping my parents, I suggest starting with your most vivid memory, the story you tell most often, the recollection that haunts you, the happiest or saddest or most traumatic time. As I have written elsewhere, my father got hung up starting his story exactly right and wrote that beginning over and over.
The important thing is START!
Today was spent translating letters from an ancestor, John Foster Buck, to his wife Adeline from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1855-56 when the legislature first convened to establish a state.
Years ago my mother showed me the four letters handed down by her mother from her grandmother. I made copies of the tiny dim spidery writing, rendered almost totally illegible in my copies. After Mother died last September I told my brother Jim about them. He had never seen them but we kept an eye out, found them, and I brought them home (from Scottsdale, AZ to Oregon) promising to type them up to share.
In August my brother, sister-in-law and sister from Arizona and perhaps my nephew from Ohio plan to meet me in Denver and travel by car to Arriba, where both sets of grandparents settled from points east, to deposit my parents’ ashes in their long-ago purchased grave sites. While there we will visit the last remaining cousin on Mother’s side of the family. So I have been struggling to bring those dim words to life again.
A perfect time, I thought, to share the typed copies of those letters along with the little genealogical information I have learned. Amusingly, each letter starts, “Dear and affectionate wife” and ends “Yours truly, John F Buck.” In every letter he asks his wife to kiss James and Charlie and also mentions, in all, Abigail, Sarah, Theodore, John, and “all the little ones.” Maybe “affectionate wife” was a tad too affectionate!
This is why I think memoirs are important. How much more there is to know about these ancestors.
My daughter called to say how much she and her husband were enjoying my memoir, BUT she spotted an unfortunate error. Twice on one page I was writing about my first drug-addicted husband (long dead) and called him by my current husband’s name! My publisher, Archway, allowed 50 corrections free and a charge of $100 per 25 changes after that. I had assured them that I didn’t need to pay no $$ for editorial help. i is a porfesional, i cun find me own erors!
Well, I did. Most of them, I hope. I have been advised and know from experience that it’s hard to spot your own errors. Looking for a possible market for the next novel I’m working on, one publisher demanded the name and address of my writing partner or editor.
I can imagine that I was writing late at night when Mark called, as usual, “Why don’t you knock it off and come watch TV with me.” And so I wrote his name instead of who I was writing about, and those aren’t the kind of errors I was looking for in the editing phase. Now the book is in print, so I will have to pay more for corrections.
Curious to see if the improved version of Amigos is available on Kindle, I went to Amazon.com > books and typed my name. There was Amigos, both e-book and paperback, PLUS my memoir, In Pursuit of Dreams, in paperback and hardback, PLUS my author photo and short bio and blogs from this site.
I had not been informed that the memoir was in print nor did I know that the other things would be on “my” page. I am concerned that the price is so high, which is partly because there are some photos. When I complained, Archway said that of course I (and retail buyers) pay a wholesale price. The e-book should be available soon, which I have priced at $3.99.
I’ll be gone camping to the Columbia River in Washington with Zumwalt cousins until July 8. Meanwhile here’s another hint to get you started writing your own memoir or helping someone else write theirs.
Carry a small notebook so whenever a memory comes you can jot it down. Just a word or two will do for now. You might want to start by dividing the notebook with post-its or paper clips. Maybe “early”, “mid-life”, and “later” will do for now. Or before and after big events such as marriage, divorce, children, etc. My memoir was first divided into “Colorado”, “Mexico”, and “Arizona”, three places I’ve lived.
Use whatever divisions work for now, knowing they can be changed. Divisions serve simply to remind you that memoir doesn’t have to be composed chronologically. Think of one story at a time for now. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of writing an entire book.
For anyone who has urged a parent or other relative to record their memories before it’s too late, or who has considered writing their own memoir, I want to offer suggestions from my own experience.
Family members for years encouraged my parents to write or at least record details of living through the dust bowl days in eastern Colorado, struggling through poverty and hardship to achieve their dream of a ranch in the mountains and then Dad’s calling to be a minister. When Dad knew his time was limited, he started his life story over and over. He was using a word processor, but didn’t understand how to edit the same pages as much as necessary.
Before he died, Mother sent pages and notes, poems and scribbling, pinned together with straight pins, since she was constantly sewing. When I got it pieced together it covered only about the first 20 years of his long life, plus some later poems and a few other incidents.
My first hint would be not to worry about how to start. As I urged Dad, write one story at a time. Start with a vivid memory or a story you have often told.
More later–my own memoir, In Pursuit of Dreams, has just been sent for proofing.