Writing Your Memoir

Writing memoirs is easier than you might think -- and it's a lasting way to leave a legacy for your family and their descendents.

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When Emmy Gelb grew up in Germany in the 1930s and '40s, she lived through pivotal events of the 20th century. But it wasn't memories of war or even the bombing of her childhood home that prompted her to start writing. It was a child's question.

"I do a lot of babysitting for my grandchildren," says Emmy, now a U.S. citizen living in Victor, New York. "One of my grandsons asked, 'Grandma, when you were my age, what was your favorite TV program?' Of course, we didn't have TV at the time. I realized these kids have no clue about what it was like then. I thought I should write something, so they could know about their grandmother before it's too late."

Emmy was unsure how to start. Then she saw that a local community college offered a course in memoir writing. On impulse, she registered for the course. There's been no stopping her since; she's hard at work on a collection of essays about her childhood. The great surprise, she says, is how easy the process has been. "When I sit down to write, as long as I get a start -- maybe the first sentence -- the memory clicks in, and it just flows out."

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Starting Your Work

Emmy Gelb's experience is not unusual. With the U.S. population aging and the first wave of baby boomers turning 60, more Americans are considering the legacies they want to leave to their descendents, including their personal histories. Courses in memoir-writing are springing up at colleges and universities, adult-education programs, and senior centers across the country.

While there is no hard data on the number of memoir courses being offered, instructors who teach them say the interest is overwhelming. Pittsburgh-based speaker and educator Jay Speyerer, who outlines his techniques of creative nonfiction in his book, The Stories of Our Days, now holds group seminars to packed houses.

Storytelling Techniques

Creating a memoir seems an intimidating task, especially for people who don't consider themselves writers; but you don't need a class to teach you how to tell a story. Speyerer notes that for most people, storytelling is an inherent skill.

"In the back of the brain, we know how to do it -- though we might not be able to tell someone else how," Speyerer says. "Bring it to the front of the brain, and it's self-propelling." These techniques can help you get that propeller started.

Narrow Your Range

To keep from feeling overwhelmed, hold the project to a manageable scale. Leave the big picture for the historians, and concentrate instead on what has been important to you. Focus on one aspect of your life: a relationship, a family crisis, a life-changing event or journey. You don't have to write a book; a collection of anecdotes or essays will give grandchildren a glimpse of the person you are.

"The beauty of memoir, versus straight autobiography, is that it is usually themed or focused," says Camy Sorbello, who teaches writing at colleges and adult education programs in Rochester, New York. "Something major, for good or for bad, in the writer's life or someone else's, is the trigger point that gets them writing."

Your subject can be tragic or triumphant, but it must be significant to you. "Memoir has 'me' in it," notes Sorbello, "meaning it needs first-person narration to make it work." So even if you're writing about someone else -- a beloved relative or friend -- the memoir is your story, and it must reflect your voice.

Zoom In on Memories

The memoirist's task is to bring long-ago events to life -- which means retrieving long-buried memories. Speyerer proposes a three-tiered method. "Think about the era you want to write about -- say, high school. Then an episode in high school -- the trip to Seattle. Then the event -- when you almost fell off the Space Needle. Gradually focus in to specific things; thinking about a specific era will take you back there." And while you're remembering the era, he says, you will recall additional events. "I tell people, if they think they can't write, to try to write at least one sentence a day. Then, I dare them to try to stop at one sentence."

Sniff Out the Story

Stimulate your senses to rekindle memories. Family photos and period music can provide cues, but there may be an even more potent prompt literally right under your nose. Scientists have found that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory function. Surround yourself with the odors of your past -- perhaps by cooking the comfort foods of your childhood -- and see what images they evoke.

Walk Down Memory Lane

Events can also be associated with a particular location. When writing about a specific episode, try visiting the place where it occurred. Even if the neighborhood has changed, just standing in the same spot can trigger remembrance. Or try drawing a map, from memory, of the neighborhood where you grew up.

Just Get It Out

Once you have the incident in your head, it's time to take up pen or keyboard and get it in writing. Sometimes this can be nerve-racking -- usually because novice writers set unrealistically high expectations. Your story doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't even have to be grammatical -- at least not at first.

Experienced writers know that 80 percent of the writing process is actually revision. "That's where much of the true creativity comes from -- the tweaking and the rewriting," says Speyerer. But, he warns, "You can't fix what isn't written yet." Before anything else, try to recount a single incident -- beginning, middle, and end -- as simply and clearly as you can, using your natural voice.

Conquering Writer's Block

Of course, getting started is only half the fun. Over time you'll want to add to your memoirs. But leaving a writing project and returning to it after a week or even a day can derail you. And sometimes, you may simply find yourself staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to write a word. Relax: Writer's block happens to the best of scribes. Here are some tricks for busting the block and enjoying yourself at the same time.

Write a Letter

Frame your memoir as a letter. Fix a friend or a relative in your mind and write your story to that person. Use your imagination; you can address a person no longer living, or even one as yet unborn -- a future grandchild, perhaps. Imagine, years down the line, what that child will learn just by reading a day-in-the life letter from you.

Shift Your Focus

A written memoir is only part of your legacy to future generations. Think about what else you'd like to pass along with your anecdotes. Photographs are an obvious choice.

For Emmy Gelb, writing a memoir was a chance for her to gather photographs. "I asked relatives if they had any pictures they could give me, and they did -- so I have enough pictures in there with what I'm writing." If you find yourself stuck on a day when the words won't come, focus on something else. If the photographs aren't working, do something completely different from writing or thinking about writing. When you return to the paper or the word processor, you may find yourself with renewed inspiration.

Forge a Paper Chain

Stories can connect families laterally, as well as across generations. A round-robin memoir can be a great way to help you take breaks from the task of writing while sharing memories with siblings, cousins, and other living relatives. Write a little bit about an event you remember, then pass it on to other family members who were there, so each can add her perspective. Your recollections may vary, but that's part of the fun -- and sorting out your differing angles on the facts may give you all a new understanding of the events.

Closing the Book

However you choose to tell it, your memoir is a chance to set the record straight. Emmy Gelb observes that her younger life is a blank spot to her grandchildren.

"They know you at the age you're at, and they think your youth was the same as theirs, more or less," she says. Such blank spots in a family's history may, in time, fill up with misremembered information. "When others have to fill in, it doesn't usually come out that well. As you get older, these things become more important. I may have two years, I may have 10 years," she says, but she's using that time to get the straight story down in black and white.

And although her younger grandchildren are still too small to appreciate her essays, Emmy has shown her work-in-progress to her 12-year-old granddaughter, Kendall. "She thought it was pretty cool," Emmy says.

For Your Enjoyment

So you've completed your memoir and want to see it on your bookshelf. A print-on-demand publisher can print and bind a book in minutes, one at a time as they are ordered, with the same quality that you see in stores. By printing books as they're ordered, services such as iUniverse.com and Xlibris.com keep costs low, letting writers publish a memoir for hundreds of dollars, not thousands. After initial fees, books typically cost $15-30 per copy.

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