Category Archives: Memoirs

The Year of Magical Thinking.

This past Saturday I attended the Canadian premiere of Joan Didion’s play The Year of Magical Thinking, based on her book by the same name. Both her book and play are extraordinary. The Chicago Sun-Times has said:

Unforgettable…Both personal and universal. She has given the reader an eloquent starting point in which to navigate through the wilderness of grief.

Didion’s work is a stark reminder of the frailty of life. In a heartbeat we can be  alone and bereft. And as she points out, this will happen to us all. I believe that personal historians are involved in important and soulful work. We make it possible to preserve the memories of those who will inevitably die. We create legacies that can be a part of the healing process for those left behind. Didion’s opening words to her book are achingly observant:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

If you haven’t read The Year of  Magical Thinking, I urge you to do so. If you have an opportunity to see the play, don’t miss it. If you haven’t yet started on your life story, begin today.

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How to Get Mom or Dad to Tell a Life Story.

Sometimes I encounter an adult son or daughter who’s  had no success in convincing a parent to record a life story.

My experience has been that if people are really reluctant, it may be very hard to nudge them into documenting their lives. I hope these tips may be of help.

  • Don’t make it sound daunting. You don’t want to create the impression that your parents have to toil away writing down every detail of their lives from birth to the present. You might say something like, “Mom, you’ve told me some great stories over the years. I’d really like to capture some of them so that your grandchildren will know more about your life. It would be a wonderful gift for them.”
  • Explain that you’ll help. You can say something like, I can bring over a recorder and we could just sit and chat about some of your favorite memories. What do you think?”
  • Suggest some different approaches. As I explained in a previous post, there’s more than one way to tell a life story. You can do it chronologically or thematically. Or you can focus on major turning points.
  • Counter the myth. One of the favorite reasons for not documenting a life story is the one that goes, “Oh my life isn’t all that interesting.”  Sound familiar? Explain to your parent that you’re not looking for interesting. What you treasure are the stories that illuminate a different time. What you want to know is what it was like living before the advent of television, computers, supermarkets, and so on. What you value is the wisdom accumulated along the way – the life lessons. What you want to hear are the things  that made  mom or dad proud, happy, and sometimes sad.

In a previous post,  6 Reasons Why Writing Your Life Story Matters, you’ll find some other good arguments to help convince your parent to record a life story. Good luck!

Photo by protoflux

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The “Mini Memoir”.

mini bookAn exercise I particularly like to use in workshops is the six-word memoir. This is based on and their popular six-word collections. For more information click here.

The idea is rumored to have started with Ernest Hemingway. He was challenged to write a six-word story and he wrote:

Baby shoes for sale, never worn.

I think the six-word memoir is a great way to get your creative writing juices flowing. Having trouble starting your life story? Why not write a six-word memoir and use it as the title for your book. Alternatively,  turn it into the introduction to your story. These mini memoirs can be intriguing and often call out for a fuller explanation.

To give you some inspiration, here are a few of the six-word gems from the participants in my recent Dawson Creek workshop.

  • Mom’s revenge, I am my mom!
  • Who said it couldn’t be done?
  • I’m aching, broken but I’m alive!
  • Work hard. Live well. Enjoy life.
  • Waiting to see what is next.
  • Daughter, sister, wife, mother,  grandma, wow!
  • Have motorcycle, will travel. I’m free!
  • Family is my Love and Joy.
  • Love it all. Not enough time.
  • Years happen. Still learning. Constantly amazed!
  • Investing in others now. Rewards coming.

Here’s mine: Learned much. Much more to learn. What’s your six-word memoir? Jot it down in the comment box below.

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Our Favorite Things Have Stories to Tell.

braceletThis past week I’ve been reminded how much our treasured possessions are a window into the stories of our life. My frail, ninety-one year old mother has  started to go through her modest collection of jewelry. She’s carefully trying to match each piece with a relative or friend she thinks would appreciate having it after she has died.   As I was sitting with her, she began telling me the stories behind each piece. There are the art deco black-and-white earrings she bought to go with a very fashionable dress my father got her shortly after they were married. A silver bracelet brought back by my dad from Pakistan during WWII is tarnished but her memories of my dad’s war experiences remain vivid. Each piece unlocks a story in my mother’s life.

And then there was a colleague at Victoria Hospice who told me of a unique funeral celebration he attended. A friend of the deceased gave a eulogy that was built entirely around photos of the  shoes in the woman’s life. Each pair of shoes had a story to tell.

In The Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday, I read an essay entitled Family Ties. It tells the story of a son’s remembrance of his father through the neckties that were passed down to him. Here’s an excerpt:

The other day I was getting ready for work and went into my closet to get a tie…I reached for a brown-, blue- and white-striped tie and I remembered that it was one of my father’s. He died last year and shortly afterward my mother, who was almost 80, made the decision to sell the big house we all grew up in. It took her a while, but she finally tackled the job of cleaning out my father’s closets… My father had a lot of ties – dozens and dozens and dozens of them…. And so, on this morning, I found myself knotting my father’s tie, remembering how we stood in front of the mirror years ago, him teaching me how to get a half-Windsor just right. I smiled, knowing I might be the only person in the building that day with a tie on.

Another interesting use of objects to tell a story appeared on the NPR website. Entitled A Catalog — Literally — Of Broken Dreams, it reviews the book Important Artifacts by New York Times op-ed page art director Leanne Shapton.  The NPR article points out:

Foregoing narrative entirely, Shapton tells the story of a couple’s relationship in the form of a staggeringly precise ersatz auction catalog that annotates the common detritus of a love affair — notes, CD mixes, e-mails, photos, books— and places the objects up for sale…. In choosing the conceit of an auction catalog, Shapton reminds us that the story of love can be told through the things we leave behind, but also by the condition in which we leave them.

All of this got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a memoir or life story built around the special things someone possesses?  Something to keep in mind. Have you already done something like this? Love to hear from you if you have.

Photo by Kylie

Book Lovers Don’t Miss This!

readingLike most personal historians you’re probably a lover of books. You read them, discuss them, shelve them and share them. I just came across a terrific  website that I think you’ll like. It’s called Goodreads and  was launched in December, 2006. It currently has more than 2,300,000 members and 54,000,000 books added to member profiles. Here’s how Goodreads describe itself:

… a free website for book lovers. Imagine it as a large library that you can wander through and see everyone’s bookshelves, their reviews, and their ratings. You can also post your own reviews and catalog what you have read, are currently reading, and plan to read in the future. Don’t stop there – join a discussion group, start a book club, contact an author, and even post your own writing.

What makes Goodreads different from other book sites like is that it’s more like going to a friend’s house. As the founder of Goodreads, Otis Y. Chandler writes:

When I want to know what books to read, I’d rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list or algorithm. So I thought I’d build a website — a website where I could see my friends’ bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books.

Goodreads is that site. It is a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa. You can create “bookshelves” to organize what you’ve read (or want to read). You can comment on each other’s reviews. And on this journey with your friends you can explore new territory, gather information, and expand your mind.

Goodreads also allows you to share your own writing. There’s even a biography and and memoir group. So check out Goodreads.  You’ll not be disappointed.

Photo by Ianqui Doodle

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The Life Story Quote of The Week.


Memoir writing, gathering words onto pieces of paper, helps me shape my life to a manageable size.  By discovering plot, arc, theme, and metaphor, I offer my life an organization, a frame, which would be otherwise unseen, unknown.  Memoir creates a narrative, a life story. Writing my life is a gift I give to myself.  To write is to be constantly reborn.  On one page I understand this about myself.  On the next page, I understand that.

~ from Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions:  A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (U of Georgia, 2009)

If you’ve been contemplating the writing of your own life story, this observation by Sue Silverman may convince you to start.  The effort it takes to craft the work  is more than amply rewarded by seeing your life, often for the first time, as a coherent and intricate pattern.

Photo by Colin Campbell

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How to Engage Your Readers.


This past week my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians have been having an interesting conversation. It’s  about making your writing more engaging by showing your readers not telling them. To explain, here’s an example taken from my own life:

Telling: ” In September 1966 I left for a two year assignment as a volunteer in Ghana.”

Showing: “I still remember that ‘muggy’ September night at Mirabelle airport in Montreal. It was 1966 and I was hours away from leaving Canada for the first time in my life. I couldn’t sit still. As I paced about the departure lounge, I felt a mixture of excitement and  apprehension. For the next two years I would be a volunteer teacher in an isolated rural secondary school in Ghana, West Africa. My youthful bravado said I could handle it. My more rational mind questioned my confidence.”

The telling example is a simple statement of fact. It lacks any emotional content. It’s flat and not engaging. By contrast, the showing example is rich with detail. We know it was humid and hot in Montreal. And we know something of what I was feeling and what was on my mind. By showing readers what was happening rather than telling them, we draw them into the story.

If you’re interviewing someone for their life story, the same rules apply. Bring out the emotion, flavor and detail of their story. If someone says, “I was married in 1939″ enrich this statement by using some  follow-up questions like these: What second thoughts did you have about your marriage? Describe the preparations that went into your wedding. What emotions were running through you on your wedding day? What stands out for you? Describe for me the place where you were married. What kind of weather did you have? What  funny incident  happened on your wedding day? Describe for me your wedding celebration. How did local or world events play into your wedding plans?

Here are some additional resources to help you with your memoir writing:

  • Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. The Library Journal says,  “Her practical guide leads both experienced and novice writers through the writing process from idea to publication, addressing such technical problems as theme selection, voice, tone, form, plot, scene, and character development, as well as how to stimulate creative thinking and build necessary discipline.”
  • The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. Publishers Weekly says, “Gornick’s book discusses ways of making nonfiction writing highly personal without being pathetically self-absorbed. In admirably plain and direct style, she discusses writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Joan Didion and a man she calls the “Jewish Joan Didion,” Seymour Krim…All the texts do nevertheless support her statement that essays can “be read the way poems and novels are read, inside the same kind of context, the one that enlarges the relationship between life and literature.”
  • Memoir Mentor is a terrific website for aspiring memoir writers. Dawn Thurston offers  generous tips on improving your writing. She has also written a book with Morris Thurston entitled, Breath Life Into Your Life Story, which you can order here.  “Written for both novices and experienced writers, this book presents techniques used by novelists to immerse readers into their fictional world—techniques like “showing” rather than just “telling”; creating interesting, believable characters and settings; writing at the gut level; alternating scene and narrative; beginning with a bang; generating tension, and more.”

Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini

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Here’s A Book You’ll Want for Your Library.

cat-and-booksAs a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I’m pleased to tell you about the publication of the Association’s new book, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of  Personal History. The APH website describes the anthology as a celebration of  “the full range of life story writing, from lighthearted stories and deeply felt reminiscence to eyewitness accounts of history…. this rich collection of 49 stories from real life — gathered or written by members of the Association of Personal Historians — also explores the importance of life review and why these stories matter so much.”

Susan Wittig Albert writing in says:

If you’re a fan (as I am) of stories rooted in real life, you will very much enjoy this book. It would also make a delightful gift for the storytellers in your family—and might even give them a few valuable ideas (and some important motivation) for telling their own stories. And if you’re a teacher of memoir, reminiscence, or personal history, it would make an excellent addition to your classroom teaching or to your students’ reading list. Imaginatively conceived, thoughtfully arranged, and professionally
edited and presented, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History will be a source of pleasure, information, and instruction.

You can read excerpts from the book here.  Priced at $19.95, you can order the book through the APH by clicking here or at by clicking here.

The anthology is edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees with a foreword by Rick Bragg.

Photo by Tyler

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What Do A Cartoonist, School Children and Life Stories Have in Common?

Comox Valley

Comox Valley

I recently heard of a creative and wonderful life story project undertaken by cartoonist, Jesse van Muijlwijk who lives in the Comox Valley of  Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Here’s an excerpt from  an article in the Comox Valley Echo:

About 200 students from grades 3 through 7 at Huband Elementary spent three weeks learning how to create graphic novels from Dutch cartoonist Jesse van Muijlwijk. Van Muijlwijk, a local resident whose cartoon De Rechter (The Judge) appears in 14 Dutch newspapers with two million readers, began by teaching the students how to interview their parents and grandparents and then write down their stories.

“They were the journalists of their own family past,” said van Muijlwijk. “Then they would bring those stories back to the classroom. Beautiful stories, all of them. Some stories from 100 years ago in Victoria, or from great-grandparents who wanted to take the Titanic and missed the boat. Stories from World War One, World War Two, the Korean War.But also people immigrating to Canada, starting from scratch and building up their lives…”

During the third and final week, the students brought in their completed storyboards and learned drawing techniques. All of the skills they learned were then used to complete the final versions of their graphic novels.  “Now we have more than 200 artworks, covering the history of the 20th century, covering all kinds of countries and covering all kinds of local history too,” said van Muijlwijk. “They are historians, they are journalists, they are writers, sometimes they are poets in their works and they are artists in visualizing their work. It adds to their identity. You know who you are when you know where you come from.”

You can read more about this innovative project by clicking here.

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What’s the Difference Between Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Life Stories?

My mom far left with her sister, mother and brother

My mom far left with her sister, mother, and brother

I must admit that I haven’t given much thought to the finer distinctions between life stories, memoirs, autobiographies, and personal essays until I came across Sharon Lippincott’s fine blog The Heart and Craft of Life Writing .  In a January post she loosely defines an array of life writing approaches:

  • Lifestory — informal vignettes of specific memories and events written from a personal perspective. There is no right way to go about it. They can be as informal as a journal, as impersonal as a document, or as insightful as memoir. They can be rough drafts or highly polished. They can stand alone or be incorporated as elements in a longer work. They are the perfect place for a beginner to get started.
  • Memoir — a highly personal account of a specific period of aspect of life. Memoir emphasizes personal reaction and interpretation as much or more than events. It generally implies more literary focus and polish and may evolve from a collection of lifestories.
  • Autobiography (chronicling) — an overview of your life, generally written in chronological order. The focus tends to emphasize events and circumstances more than personal observation and interpretation.
  • Journaling — a repository of raw thoughts, memories, and insights. A tool for discovering insights and documenting and recording events. Journaling is highly personal and there is no right way to do it.
  • Documenting — memorabilia that genealogists treasure like a birth and marriage certificates together with constructed documents like a time line of your life, an account of a specific event including details. Many autobiographies serve to document the details of a life. These documents often serve as supplementary material for other writing.
  • Personal Essay — the other end of the line from documenting … or maybe not. Essays document insights, beliefs, opinions, and interpretations rather than facts. An ethical will is a type of personal essay.
  • Poetry and music — valued and time-honored forms of expression….

I like Sharon’s list and would add a couple of other categories to what I call Life Narratives. Family histories are another form of narrative.  I  define them as a work that covers a span of a person’s life and includes details of other family members such as parents and grandparents, aunts, and uncles and brothers and sisters. Certainly Scrapbooking which has become the choice for many who want to capture their family story is another form of Life Narrative. I know some who have used Quilts to record stories -  the most famous of which is the The Aids Memorial Quilt.

What I find wonderful about all these ways we can capture our stories is that it reveals the richness of possibilities. So if you’re struggling trying to think of how to begin your story, maybe knowing that you don’t have to go the traditonal route will spur you on!

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