Today, I’m inspired to write about writing one’s life, after reading Penelope Trunk’s blog today called How To Write About Your Life.
Of course, most of us live uninteresting lives, uninteresting except to a few people [or perhaps many depending on how long your written words survive]. So, first you have to consider why you want to write about your life. If you’re writing primarily to make money, then you will have to listen to editors, because they know what sells. If you are famous for some reason, then likely some people will want to read about your life, but the editors will tell you how to do it, and you have to pay attention to deadlines. I’m not sure if that’s really a great reason to write about your life, but maybe it is. In the 1990s, I took a creative writing course at George Mason University and learned that there are only about 200 people in the entire US who actually make a good living as fiction writers. I have no idea what that statistic might be now. And I’m not bothering to look it up. Google it and let me know.
If, however, you’re writing because you want to tell your own story from your perspective (instead of letting someone else tell it from their perspective when you die — that’s the obituary) then you don’t need to pay attention to editors, and you can write when you want to, in whatever way feels right. I have a couple dozen books about how to write about your life and from time to time I read parts of them. Taking a class in how to write your life will get you started and maybe keep you motivated.
Most of us have written pieces of our lives over the years starting in elementary school. A while back, I found my autobiography that I had written in 6th grade. It’s very funny to read, both for what I said in it and for what I didn’t say in it, considering what was going on in my life when I was in 6th grade. Last month, I came across my first diary, written sometime back in those same years, which was again filled with sad and laughable commentary that I did not remember writing at all, including one page (only one) in which I commented on the Bay of Pigs crisis — at the age of, uh, 10 or 11??? Very strange.
My dad wrote his life story in his 70s, at a time when his health was failing and his memory was poor, although I suspect that the early years he wrote about were more accurate than more recent times. I was very grateful that he took the time to write about himself, although I did notice that he wrote nothing at all about being a parent, or about his two children — my brother and I. Selfishly, I felt insulted but at the same time, I was thrilled to read the details of his life before being a parent. I never got to ask him about his story, or to interview him in-depth about his life, despite the fact that I am a trained interviewer and researcher. I’m embarrassed about that. I have no idea why it never occurred to me to ask him more about his life. In later years, when I asked my mother more about her life, she could never remember anything at all in detail. I waited too long to ask her, and she never wrote anything about herself for me to read.
Most people who write about their lives spend a lot of time writing about their ancestors and where they came from, so they have to interview people in older generations and get different perspectives and information about people from the past. Sadly for me, there’s no one left to interview. I am the senior generation now. But I can still write about my own life, and what I remember and know about all those folks in the family photos. Why would I do this? Because I like remembering things, even if they are sad, and I want to write things down. It’s part of the magic of memory — writing things down.
I only knew one of my grandmothers, the other [my mother’s mother] having died in her 30s of pneumonia in Watervliet, New York in 1927. The grandmother I did know, my dad’s mother, lived to the age of 100, but spent the last 15 years of her life with Alzheimer’s. Before she developed AD symptoms, she used to write letters to me in college, which I thoughtlessly never kept. Not having anything at all written by my only grandmother was a source of great sadness to me for a long time. Even a postcard would have been treasured now. Then a few years ago, I found in a box my very first baby book compiled by my mother. She had removed the photos and put them into some other album, but had kept the baby book. It’s 6×8 inches, thin, and covered with pink silky-feeling fabric with light blue lettering on the cover. When I found it, I actually looked at each empty page, one by one. I saw in the front that a New York Life Insurance Agent had given it to my parents. It’s called “Baby’s Story Book” and has lots of writing in it in my mother’s distinctive handwriting. [Whose handwriting is not distinctive, right?] And I learned from the baby book lots of details about that first year, including that my first “formula” consisted of evaporated milk, boiled water and Karo syrup. Great. My mother was a meticulous record-keeper, making notes about everything, even well beyond the early years — she even made a note in that same baby book about when I got a physical prior to college!
When I got to the last page of the baby book, I was astonished to see a couple paragraphs in a different hand — and to my amazement, I immediately recognized my grandmother’s handwriting!! I think I probably started crying when I saw these notes, at least a bit… I had no idea that my grandmother had made notes in my baby book! This is what I read:
“I took my first train ride from Toledo to Syracuse with Brother & Nana on Mar. 1st 1954.” My nana wrote those words as if I were writing them — as if they were my journal. Then she wrote: “Easter Sunday, Apr. 19, 1954. The Easter Bunny brought 2 baskets — with candy, eggs, etc. And Daddy bought me ‘Howdy Doody’ — Had my first white gloves & was all dressed up & went to church with Daddy & Bumpa — Stayed in the Nursery. Daddy took pictures of Brother & me in the house & movies out of doors.” So, it turns out I do have at least a few words written by my grandmother, who I called Nana.
I knew that my mother had been hospitalized in Toledo where we lived because she suffered from a “nervous breakdown” after my brother was born. Perhaps it was severe postpartum depression. I knew that my grandmother, aged 61 by 1954, had taken a train out to Toledo, picked up my brother and I, and taken us back to Liverpool, NY, where she and my grandfather (I called him “Bumpa” and it stuck) lived in a house on Onondaga Lake. But I didn’t know exactly when that happened, but now I know because my grandmother wrote it in my baby book. And I still have that home movie of Easter in 1954.
A few years ago, I started looking around for a class to take in writing my life story, having read in one of my books that the author taught such a course for a semester at a community college. I could only find a week-long summer course at the University of Wisconsin, taught by a well-known regional writer. I signed up for the course and really enjoyed it, but in one week, I did not make much progress on my life story. Still, the short class inspired me. And I did write some additional pieces of my life.
I have never wanted to be a teacher. There is one thing I would really enjoy teaching, however, and that is a course in how to write your life. But I think that I can’t really do that soon because I haven’t written my own life yet. Well, I’ve written many pieces here and there, and done a lot of scrapbook photo albums with a lot of journaling, but there’s no one document or manuscript that I can pull out and say, this is my own story about my life. But all this could happen — I could some day finish my life story and teach others how to do that.
I do really think that every single person should write about their own life, so that the story is straight, according to how you know your life went. Don’t rely on some relative to write your obit. Your kids don’t know you at all, and your spouse, if you have one, may or may not survive you. And anyway, they don’t know you all that well either! Write your own story, regardless of whether or not it’s profitable. Likely it won’t be but who cares? And if you don’t know how to do it, then just start blogging.