Thursday, June 19, 2014

How to Begin Recording Your Life Story Part 1: What is memoir or life story, why record it, spark your memory

by J.Q. Rose

What is it? Why write a memoir?

Our lives are filled with extraordinarily ordinary moments.  Our souls are illuminated by them.  Sharing them around the hearths of our hearts, we become tellers of sacred tales, artists of our lives.
                                                      ----Dr. Susan Wittig Alberta, Writing from Life

Welcome, Dear Writers. I am J Q Rose. I am delighted to be here with you today to share my passion. I have led workshops on life story writing since 2004. It is my mission in life to help people record their life stories for future generations. The precious gift of your life stories to your family will certainly become a treasured heirloom for future generations.

This mini-workshop is an overview of the salient points in creating memoirs. I included some quick “homework” assignments if you care to try them and share with us.

What is a memoir or life story?

You may choose to write a chronological diary with only names, relationships, dates, and places. An autobiography is usually a chronological record of a life. A memoir or life story fleshes out your story revealing your memories, but also emotions. It gives life to people in your story much as you write characters in your novel. A memoir is a more intimate record of your life revealing true feelings. It may cover only a segment of your life and concentrate on one theme such as overcoming an illness, discussing your career(s), or taking readers on your travel adventures. Only YOU can record your memoir, but you must tell the truth when you decide to record it. Otherwise, why bother?

The easiest way to record one is to begin one story at a time. Don't try to tell it all from the very beginning. Write in vignettes or snapshots of your life. You can organize all those stories later either chronologically or group them together in themes.

Telling your story is like eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

The information you choose to share in the memoir will depend on your audience. Writing for family members only or writing for publication will shape the stories, relationships, or themes you will choose.

A memoir can be recorded by writing your life story or by telling your story using an audio file e.g. mP3 or video format.

Why record a memoir?
So many of us question why anyone would want to read our stories. We just live such ordinary lives. We didn’t discover electricity, build a rocket ship, or discover the cure to a deadly disease.

1. No, we didn’t (or maybe some of you did), but each story you tell will be read with interest by your family members and friends. Each joy and sorrow you share with them will be a guide for their lives. They can find comfort and assurance knowing someone else can overcome difficulties, be gracious in situations, and find joy in living an ordinary life.

2. Writing your story helps you understand your life. Seeing it through the lens of time, people’s actions, emotions, and words become more clear to you than when you actually lived the moments.

3. You will preserve the family history as well as telling the “real” story of historical events and how they affected your ordinary life. Have you lived through the Vietnam War era, civil rights movement, Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King assassination, the first step on the moon, 9/11 tragedy?  Yes, you have stories to tell.

4. One of the best reasons to write is to have fun. You'll be surprised how many family members will be willing to share memories with you. This is a great conversation starter and you will learn a whole lot about your family and friends by re-living the memories as seen through their eyes. As one commenter added last week, she helped her Grandmother tell her story and they grew closer.


If you still feel unsure about deciding to write your life story, please download and read this free e-book from Women’s Memoirs entitled the Top Ten Reasons to Write Your Memoir.

Now that you are convinced to write a memoir, where do you begin? How do you recall all those memories? 

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Make a Memory Bank

A Memory Bank is just what it says, a bank or storage for your memories. A three ring binder with pockets is the best way to keep everything together. Your first step in setting out to record your life story is to make a memory bank. The Memory Bank is an idea from Lois Daniel’s book, How to Write Your Own Life Story, the most helpful book for writing life stories I have found.

Use one page in your binder for each topic—Family, Holidays, School, Homes, Careers, Recipes, Relationships, etc. Individuals will discover topics unique to each person’s experiences and interests such as Military Service and Travel. Write the topic at the upper right hand side of the page. Jot quick notes about each memory related to the topic. You may want to further break down each topic to have a separate sheet on each family member or career. Then when something sparks your memory, note it on the appropriate topic page or start a new one. These ideas will become the basis for your next story. Sometimes when writing about a holiday, a memory of a special dessert your grandmother prepared will come to mind. Write a note about it on your grandmother’s page and on the recipe page.

The extra pages of lined paper will be used to write your stories if you wish to handwrite them or notes to use on audio recordings. If you do use a keyboard, print your notes or stories, punch the three holes in, and add them to the binder. (I like to print my stories out so I have a hard copy, just in case technology lets me down.) The pockets will hold photos, articles, memorabilia, flash drive, CDs, and any treasures you gather during the course of your writing.

As you experiment with the following exercises, you will recall all kinds of memories. Be sure to transfer them to the appropriate page in your Memory Bank binder.

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Spark your memory

  • Time Line. Draw a horizontal line on paper to represent your life. Mark off the years beginning with 0, 7, 14, 21, 28, and so forth. Above the line write all the good things that happened to you in these segments e.g. between 14 and 21 driver’s license, engaged to be married. Below the line write the bad things that happened e.g. between 21-28 a car accident, loss of a loved one. One memory will lead to another. Add to this time line during your writing.
  • Life Stages. Some are more comfortable dividing their lives into different stages of life such as childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood. Note your outstanding memories during these stages.
  • Photos. Looking through photos really brings the past into the present. Seeing the faces of friends and family and the background locations truly spark memories.
  •  Writing Prompts. Google “memoir writing prompts” and you will find many sites dedicated to writing memoirs with helpful prompts to trigger your memories.
CreativeWriting Prompts, Starts & Story Starters  for memoir/life story prompts   

Choose a writing prompt. If you wish, please share a paragraph with us from your story or writing prompt in the comments section.

Are you convinced writing your life story could be in your future?If you have questions about life story writing, please ask in a comment below or email me at jqrose02 at gmail dot com. 

Thanks for stopping. Come back next Thursday to learn how to organize your story.

After writing feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines for over fifteen years, J.Q. Rose entered the world of fiction beginning with mysteries, Sunshine Boulevard, and Coda to Murder, published by Muse It Up Publishing. With Girls Succeed!, a non-fiction e-book for girls,  she returned to her first love, writing about real people. 


Miss Mae said...

So, have you done this, Janet? I think this is important too, because it keeps us grounded. Our daughter is an only child and she yearns to preserve our family "foundation". Not that I or her daddy have done a great job, but you're inspiring. :)

J.Q. Rose said...

MM--I am working on writing down stories. Usually when I present a workshop I do the assignments right along with everyone else. Thank you, but I am always inspired by hearing the life stories the writers share in class. Sometimes everyone ends up misty eyed. So are you helping your daughter get the story told??

Anonymous said...

Hi, Janet. Lots of great ideas to get started.

J.Q. Rose said...

Thanks, Susanne!

Paul McDermott said...

Hi, JQ!
From Over the Pond (hope you'll be @ TWC tonight!)
Some interesting thoughts on this Blog post.
Where do you draw a line between Fact and Fiction? Perhaps there should be a 'genre' called "Fact-ion" or something similar?
I'm the oldest [male] child in my family (including all cousins, etc).
Following Irish tradition, that makes me the Seanch'ai for the family.
The Seanch'ai learns the COMPLETE family history in the Oral tradition, sitting on my Grandfather's knee (he was the previous Seanch'ai).
One day I'll pass on the Knowledge to MY grandson in exactly the same way ...

When I decided to use modern technology (Internet) to supplement the Oral Tradition received from my Grandfather, a story sprang to life which I simply HAD to write down. Fiction driven by historical fact, it led to my first published book, which has enjoyed modest sales so far, and TWO sequels (still WiPs) to form a Trilogy. I plan to release Book Two later this year. Much of the advice you include in your Blog is already part of the way I work, and I thank you for a few extra ideas the posting has given me!

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Paul, Thanks for visiting! All the books on memoir I have read say to always place a "disclaimer" about your story because no one has a perfect memory so of course, the conversations are not exact and perhaps the locations may be off a bit too. It isn't fiction, it's just the gist of what you remember and feelings you have for that instant in time from your perspective. So it's okay to let the reader in on that. But the TRUTH is always demanded in each situation. Don't gloss over that and try to change it because you aren't being honest with yourself or your reader. And what's the purpose for writing a memoir if not to tell the reader what really happened in your life. I didn't realize your book sprang to life from your family's story. Very special. Best wishes on your trilogy!

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