Are you an older writer considering writing a memoir for the first time? If so, you’re not alone: Perhaps you wish to pass down stories of your life to children or grandchildren. Perhaps you long to make sense of painful experiences you’ve lived through. Maybe you simply wish to rekindle a lifelong dream of writing, and focusing on lived experiences feels like the best entry into the world of literature. Maybe you hope to be widely published, or maybe you hope no one other than a few trusted friends and family members will read your stories.
Regardless of the reasons that lead you to the starting line, there are several myths about writing a memoir that can deter older writers from sharing their stories. In my six years of teaching community college memoir classes geared toward older adults, I have seen many concerns brought up by my students each semester. Many believe that their lives aren’t “book worthy” or that younger generations won’t be interested in reading about their experiences. Others find it hard to select a starting point or can’t decide a theme to settle on. Plenty worry about what family or friends will think when they hear about secret pasts.
Often, the apprehensions or worries about writing come up before the students even connect pen to paper. The sheer magnitude of these worries has kept some from enjoying the process of sharing their stories. While writing memoir can certainly challenge writers emotionally and creatively, the process does not need to be grueling or intimidating. Here are the most common issues I hear from my students, along with encouraging tips to keep you moving forward.
Accessing your memories
Many of my writing students share that they have forgotten details of significant places or events in their lives; for those who have lived full lives for 70-plus years, chances are it can be challenging to recall the finer details of an incident that unfolded 50 years ago.
When it comes to remembering details, the internet can be an incredibly helpful tool. Writers can use YouTube to listen to favorite songs from a specific time period, Google historical images of high schools or family vacation spots, watch films from a particular era, and, my personal favorite, search for images of magazine covers or news stories from the years they are writing about. These forays into the internet tend to spark long-buried memories.
Scent and taste can often jog memories, too, so eating a favorite dish from childhood or seeking out things like fresh lilacs can stir memories of strolling through grandma’s flower garden as a child.
I suggest keeping a notebook and jotting memories and story ideas down as they come up. However, I encourage memoirists NOT to consult with family about how certain incidents played out while they have work in progress. While asking family about factual things like addresses, birthdays or anniversaries, or the name of a wacky distant relative can be helpful during the writing process, memories or interpretation of events can vary wildly from person to person. Chances are, no two people will have the same memory of an incident, and this can often confuse or sway the memory of the writer.