Unlike an autobiography, which simply tells a life story, a memoir taps into universal truths and lets us find echoes of them in our own lives.
In the movie Shadowlands, a university student remembers his father’s saying, “We read to know that we are not alone.” Writing can offer a similar opportunity for self-discovery. As you piece together your story, you reconstruct your life.
Want to write a memoir? The benefits of doing so are many.
For one, your children and their children will be glad you did. For another, revisiting events in your past will help you understand them and the path your journey has taken.
We are all constantly reinventing ourselves. We all want to believe that our lives make sense, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and meaningful progress in between. To keep things orderly, we must constantly tweak the narrative to make room for the present and the future.
Recalling the past helps you celebrate it and also mark its passing. This may not sound like much if you are a twenty-something, but it can mean a lot if you are in your seventies or older.
A memoir can help you grieve the death of someone close to you. You can record details that may fade in time. You can celebrate a person’s achievements. You can take stock of gifts in the form of love, wisdom, and help.
When we write, we reflect upon information and its significance. The act of writing longhand stimulates the nerve endings in your fingertips, which connect to your brain, and in the process sparks ideas. Keyboards, on the other hand, may be better at keeping pace with your thoughts.
So how to start a memoir? One way might be to outline your life. You can then either proceed with a full-fledged autobiography or carve out a period or an event on which to focus.
List the decades since your birth. For each decade, see what you know or can remember. If you like, you can break the information down into categories. Where did you live? Where did you go to school or work? Who were your friends, your teacher, your pastor, your doctor, your neighbors? Look for old photos and snapshots.
Once you have exhausted your memory for information about each decade, take up one decade at a time and drill down. What can you recall about each year? Do you remember nursery school, kindergarten, and the grade school experience in any detail? How about the holidays? Favorite games, toys, books, clothing? Where did you spend vacations? Put it all down.
At some point memories will flow less freely. Then you can ask relatives or friends what they recall from the period in question. Ransack your drawers and your closets for surviving evidence—a scrap of cloth from an old curtain, a postcard, jewelry, and Girl Scout badges. Even furniture, dishes, and pots and pans tell a story.
When you run out of things to look at in your house and the homes of siblings or cousins, go to an antique shop. There you will find stuff at least a hundred years old mixed in with newer, collectible things. In midlife and later people often browse through such stores in order to remember an earlier time.
Revisit defunct magazines and newspapers from the town where you lived. What caught the reporters’ attention? I remember singing “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” with my best friend at the age of twelve and thirteen, when the nation was marking the centennial of the American Civil War.
You can also revisit the places you knew long ago. Go into your old elementary school. See how much remains of the structure you remember. Smell the hallways in your old high school.
Look for the houses and apartments where you lived. Listen to the sounds in the street. How has the neighborhood changed? I dimly remember street vendors hawking fresh fish and vegetables in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1950s. Many places where I once lived are unrecognizable today.
Don’t forget about the language from a less technologically advanced era. Why do we speak of “hanging up” the phone? Why was a refrigerator called an ice box? What’s the difference between a stove and a range?
Can you remember airmail envelopes and S&H Green Stamps? Do you know why your mother poured bacon grease into empty coffee cans?
Can you remember when milk was delivered in glass bottles placed outside your door in an insulated box with a hinged cover? If you lived in the city as a child, was the mail delivered several times a day by the postman during the December holidays?
What about old expressions that have faded from public use? Did you ever hear the words “Goody Two Shoes”? “Called for and couldn’t come?” Where did these phrases originate?
Don’t forget how new inventions have changed our lives. How did people spend their free time before they had television sets? What radio programs were popular? What did people do in the evening before there was radio and before electric lights?
Why do we speak of ending a phone call as “hanging up” on someone? Can you remember telephones that were party lines? Did anyone you know work as a switchboard operator? What other occupations have vanished in our time?
What woodworking and other tools do you recall that are no longer used? How did people wash windows and clean their kitchen floors when you were a child?
If you look at old movies, how do attitudes and social customs seem to have changed? Look at the different dances people used to do. What about ways in which we speak to people who are older than we, younger, or the same age? Do men in the company of women still stay on the curb side of the sidewalk?
My mom liked her oatmeal with milk and brown sugar. My father ate his with white sugar and a pat of butter. What foods have disappeared from dining tables in our time? Have you ever heard of blancmange?
Were there regional specialties, from parts of the United States or from other countries, that your family recreated as part of its traditional culture? My dad favored scrapple, hominy, grits, and spoonbread. I had a German friend who made wonderful Stollen.
Did your family have special holiday dishes and rituals? How did you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Thanksgiving? How have churches and other places of worship changed? Have they remained the same in any ways you can think of?
As we celebrate the seasons and the annual holidays, we keep some old things and add some that are new. The ongoing interaction of the past and the present lets us notice the myriad ways that life changes while remaining the same.
Finally—and this benefit is not to be missed—how we interpret the past can help us chart a different path in the future as we decide what to remember and what to forget.