Retrospect Changed My Life

Suzy doing yoga in Mexico

Retrospect, the new, free website that helps baby boomers capture and pass on their stories, has attracted a vibrant and committed community of storytellers. We recently caught up with Suzy, a retired attorney from Sacramento, who told us why she has become a Retrospect fan and regular contributor.

Retrospect: Suzy, thanks for talking to us today. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself?

Suzy: I was born and raised in New Jersey, went to Radcliffe College and the University of California, Davis, School of Law. I practiced law for 30 years in Sacramento, and then retired at age 55. I have a husband and three grown children.

Retrospect: The Internet is a big place. Why spend your time on Retrospect?

Suzy: As a baby boomer, now retired and an empty nester, I have lots of activities to fill my time, but none as rewarding as writing for Retrospect. Retrospect changed my life.

Retrospect: That’s high praise! How did it do that?

Suzy: One way is that it introduced me to a community of writers who have become valued friends. Another is that by writing every week I have become a better writer. A third is that it has inspired me to delve into many experiences from my past that I might never have remembered if it had not been for a Retrospect prompt.

Retrospect: Why do you want to tell your stories now?

Suzy: I feel that it is important for me to write down these memories, because even though my children are not interested now, I think they will be some day, and by then I may not remember, or may not even be around. I wish my parents and grandparents had had a place like this to share their memories.

Retrospect: What do you like about it?

Suzy: I have rediscovered the joy of writing for its own sake, which I had when I was a teenager, and then lost after years when I wrote because I had to, for college, graduate school, and a long professional career. Now I am excited to sit down and write a new story for Retrospect.

Retrospect: How does Retrospect inspire your writing?

Suzy: Being given a prompt every week gives me a focus to write about. Although people are also welcome to write on any topic they choose, I’m not creative enough to come up with my own topics. As I mentioned, the prompts they provide almost always trigger important memories for me.

Retrospect: What is your experience with the Retrospect community?

Suzy: Getting comments on my stories from the other writers at Retrospect is part of my incentive for writing. It is always so satisfying to read what they have to say about what I have written. On three different occasions, my story has led another author to write a story in response to mine, which is also extremely gratifying.

Retrospect: One story that particularly moved us was This Story is Not About Cooking, in which you reported that you shared some of your Retrospect stories with your mother in her final days. Of the stories you have posted on Retrospect, which is your favorite?

Suzy: Asking me which is my favorite story is like asking me which of my children is my favorite! I don’t think I can pick one. But if I had to choose a couple that would give people a taste of Retrospect, I would pick one I wrote about my grandparents (Those Were the Days, My Friend) and one about singing at Tanglewood when I was in college (To Sing in Perfect Harmony). I read both of those to my mother when she was ill, and she loved them, so of course that makes them special to me.


Our thanks to Suzy for sharing her experience, and for being a valued member of the Retrospect community.

What’s your story? Share it on Retrospect.

The Stinky Cow Principle

Stinky cow

Writer and memoirist Andy Raskin has been preaching the gospel of story to corporations for years. In a recent essay, he proposed a storytelling guideline, called the Stinky Cow Principle, that is equally applicable to personal stories on Retrospect.

He cites the example of a student in a storytelling workshop who, asked how he came to his profession, said simply, “I was trying to make it in the film business. But it wasn’t working out.” But when Andy asked him to describe the moment he knew it wasn’t working out, the student painted a verbal picture involving the Discovery Channel, a van, and a dead, putrid cow that brought the moment to life.

Andy suggests:

Tell incidents as scenes, not as summaries.

That’s good advice for all stories, not just corporate ones.

You can read Andy’s essay, and the student’s Stinky Cow story, on Medium. Write on!



Buy Andy’s memoir, The Ramen King and I, on Amazon

Write Your Way to Health and Happiness

Journal writing

What if there was a pill you could take—or better yet, an exercise you could do—that could make you healthier, feel happier, sleep better, and improve your memory? What if you only had to take or do it four times, for 20 minutes each, and the effects would last for months or even years?

The exercise is real—I’ll tell you about in a minute—but first let me tell you how it was discovered and validated scientifically. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, James W. Pennebaker, now a research psychologist at the University of Texas, was investigating traumatic experiences, which have long been associated with illness, depression, and even premature death. Pennebaker was intrigued by data showing that people who had experienced childhood trauma, but kept it secret, visited their physicians almost 40% more often that those who had confided in someone else.

Benefits of “expressive writing”

James W. Pennebaker

James W. Pennebaker

Pennebaker wondered whether writing about a trauma would be as beneficial as telling someone about it. In his first study of what he later called expressive writing, he brought 50 college students into his lab and asked them to write for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. What they wrote was up to them, but he asked them to explore their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic or stressful experiences in their lives. After each writing session, they could give what they wrote to the experimenters, keep it, or destroy it, as they chose.

Pennebaker was surprised by how seriously they took the assignment. The students wrote about truly horrible experiences, including divorce, rape, abuse, and suicide attempts. “Many students came out of their writing room in tears,” he reported. “Clearly, it was an emotionally trying experience for them. But they kept coming back. And, by the last day of the experiment, most reported that the experience had been profoundly important for them.”

With the subjects’ permission, the experimenters’ tracked their visits to physicians both before and after the study. Those in the expressive writing group made 43% fewer doctor visits for illness than those in a control group that wrote only about superficial topics.

Writing to HealThis was a revelation, and Pennebaker ended up devoting his professional career to exploring its ramifications. In study after study, he and his colleagues found that expressive writing had positive effects on health and wellbeing. Across ages, cultures, and social class, across many different measures, spending just short periods of time writing personal, expressive stories is beneficial. As Pennebaker reported in his 2004 book, Writing to Heal, the researchers have found that emotional writing is related to:

  • Enhanced immune function
  • Medical health indicators, such as better lung function among asthma patients, lower pain levels among arthritis sufferers, higher white blood cell counts among AIDS patients, less sleep disruption among cancer patients, and lower blood pressure in excessive drinkers
  • Happier feelings, less negativity, fewer depressive symptoms, and lower anxiety in the weeks and months after expressive writing (even though they report sadness and even tears immediately afterward)
  • Better grades in school and increases in working memory
  • High sociability, including talking and laughing more easily

In one study, middle-aged men who had just lost long-term, high-tech jobs were asked to write about their deepest emotions and thoughts about the layoffs. Eight months later, 52% of these men had found new jobs, compared with only 20% of a control group who had written about how they used their time. Interestingly, both groups went to the same number of job interviews, but the men who wrote were more likely to be offered the job.

If you’re thinking this works only for skilled writers, think again. The power of expressive writing transcends education and writing ability. “In some studies,” Pennebaker notes, “the participants had no conception of spelling or grammar. It made no difference. They still told compelling and powerful stories.”

In expressive writing, says Pennebaker, it’s important to be honest and open with yourself. Acknowledge both positive and negative emotions, and write as if no one else will ever see it. You can be literal about this, by destroying your writing afterwards or locking it away. Later, if you decide to share it, you can choose with whom and how. Finally, follow what he calls the flip-out rule: If you feel that you will flip out by writing about a particularly painful topic, write about something else.

Where to write your stories

Despite the benefits, it’s not easy to do expressive writing, and especially to do it regularly. The blank page can be intimidating. In today’s busy world, it’s hard to find the time, let alone the discipline, to sit down and write. And writing about traumas and setbacks can be at least temporarily depressing.

That’s why two colleagues and I created this free website—Retrospect—designed to help our fellow baby boomers tell our stories. Each week we post a prompt—a suggested topic designed to evoke memories and feelings. Typical prompts are “Grandparents,” “Camp,” and “The Ones We Miss.” We invite our community to write short, true stories in response to the prompt.

Of course, not every prompt will suggest a story to you, let alone a traumatic event. That’s fine. We designed Retrospect to make it easy to capture all of your stories, both triumphs and setbacks. If you don’t have a story to tell about a particular prompt, write about another topic, or skip that week.

One principle of expressive writing is to write for yourself only, being honest about your feelings. We support that, and you are welcome to keep your stories private, or to share them only with family and friends. When appropriate, however, we encourage you to share them with the whole community, who are also sharing stories on the same prompt. That’s where the magic happens. Together, all the stories on the site form a mosaic of our shared experiences.

You’ll find the community friendly and supportive. We set community standards and take them seriously. We designed Retrospect to feel like you’ve joined a lively dinner party of old friends and amiable strangers, where amid tasty food and flowing wine the conversation turns to young love or old TV shows or lessons learned, and everyone chimes in with their best story.

On Retrospect, writing skill or style isn’t required. What matters is telling your story authentically as it happened to you, in your own words and in your own voice. All of us can do that.

Retrospect members report great personal satisfaction in telling our stories on the site, amplified by positive feedback you get from friends, family, and the community. (One even told us, “Retrospect changed my life!”) But our stories are also a priceless gift we can give to our children and grandchildren. If that seems unlikely, imagine if today you somehow received a booklet of stories from your grandparents, relating key moments and experiences from their lives. What a treasure that would be.

Give expressive writing a try! Go to our home page and see how others are compiling their own memories, experiences, and wisdom. Then just sign up and start writing! (Click Get Started for an easy, quick guide to telling your stories on Retrospect.)


John Unger Zussman is a PhD psychologist, a creative and corporate storyteller, and a co-founder of Retrospect. Special thanks to James W. Pennebaker for conducting the revelatory and important research summarized here.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Retrospect Salutes International Women’s Day

International Women's Day logo

As a majority woman-owned business, Retrospect supports International Women’s Day and this year’s Day Without a Woman. With this week’s prompt, Women’s Lib, we are proud to host important personal stories about birth control and abortion rights, women in healthcare, gender-busting an engineering crew, and more.

Consciousness raising has long been built on women telling their stories to each other. We invite you to tell your stories, today or any day, on Retrospect.

I Remember It Well: Why Baby Boomers Need to Write Their Stories Now


We met at nine—
We met at eight,
I was on time—
No, you were late.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.
We dined with friends—
We dined alone,
A tenor sang—
A baritone.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.*

Which one are you in this song? Do you remember details of the past or just the broad strokes? Are you easily reminded of things long forgotten, or do you struggle to recall your history?

It’s time to tell our stories, and it’s not just because our memories are fading. Our stories are also a gift we can give to our children and grandchildren, our families and friends. Don’t you wish your grandparents and parents had told more of their stories before it was too late? If you somehow discovered a book of your grandparents’ recollections and memories, wouldn’t you treasure it?

So don’t put it off any longer! Telling your story can:

  • • Remind you of how far you’ve traveled
  • • Help put things in perspective
  • • Give you some closure on the past
  • • Entertain and enlighten your readers
  • • Allow you to relive triumphs and laugh at tribulations
  • • Benefit your mental, emotional, and even physical health

So now is the time for baby boomers to tell our stories, and Retrospect is the way to do it. We offer a weekly prompt to focus your thoughts, and a supportive community, sharing their own memories, to help jog yours.

So think back and share forward … on Retrospect.

That dazzling April moon—
There was none that night,
And the month was June—
That’s right, that’s right.
It warms my heart to know that you
Remember still the way you do.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.*


* Written by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe. Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

How Not to Write Your Memoirs

 

You’ve led such an interesting life, everyone tells you. You should write a memoir! And you have to agree. You’ve had a lifetime of extraordinary experiences.

So go ahead. Write a memoir. Put your life together, sum it all up. Give it to your kids and grandkids.

Maybe you’ve even sat down at the computer or with pen and paper. You may have taken notes, jotted down a few sentences. I was born, you start. My parents met. But the page or screen stares back like an accusation. It doesn’t flow. It seems like a slog.

A friend with whom I sometimes walk has been writing his memoirs for several years, since his wife passed away. How is it coming, I asked him recently. Pretty good, he says. Probably a year to go. I look back at him. That’s what he told me six months ago. He turns 98 this month, karma willing.

I hope he makes it—for his son’s sake as well as his own. But the blank page intimidates us all.

So I’m going to propose a radical suggestion. Stop. Give up. Don’t write your memoirs.

Instead, tell your stories.

You know, the ones you regale people with at parties or over dinner. The ones people laugh at or shed a tear over and then tell you again that you should write a memoir. The ones your kids, when they were kids, clamored for you to repeat. Tell us how you and Daddy met. Tell us about Grandma. Tell us about when we were born.

Memoirs are hard, but stories are easy. We tell them all the time. And over time, as stories accumulate, one by one, they begin to encompass your life. They become, well, a sort of memoir.

Photo credit: www.oneleftmedia.com

Photo credit: www.oneleftmedia.com

That’s why two colleagues and I created Retrospect, the free website (whose blog you’re now reading) dedicated to helping people tell their stories. Each week we post a prompt—a suggested topic designed to evoke memories and feelings. Typical prompts might be “Grandparents,” “Halloween,” or “First Day of School.” We invite our community to write short, true stories in response to the prompt.

You are welcome to keep your stories private, or to share them only with family and friends. We encourage you, however, to share with the whole community, who are also sharing stories on the same prompt. That’s where the magic happens. Together, all the stories on the site form a mosaic of our shared experiences.

You’ll find the community friendly and supportive. We set community standards and take them seriously. We designed Retrospect to feel like you’ve joined a lively dinner party of old friends and amiable strangers, where amid tasty food and flowing wine the conversation turns to young love or old TV shows or lessons learned, and everyone chimes in with their best story.

And, as at a dinner party, writing skill or style isn’t required. What matters is telling your story authentically as it happened to you, in your own words and in your own voice. All of us can do that.

There’s a personal satisfaction to telling your stories on Retrospect, amplified by positive feedback you get from friends, family, and the community. Research shows that writing down your stories can benefit your health and wellbeing. But it’s also a priceless gift you can give to your children and grandchildren. If that seems unlikely, imagine if today you somehow received a booklet of stories from your grandparents, relating key moments and experiences from their lives. What a treasure that would be.

So don’t write your memoirs—tell your stories! Click the logo above to go to the home page and see how others are compiling their own memories, experiences, and wisdom. Then just sign up for free and start sharing! (Click Get Started for an easy, quick guide to telling your stories on Retrospect.)


John Unger Zussman is a psychologist, a creative and corporate storyteller, and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Buy It On Amazon

We have the honor of hosting several published authors on Retrospect. We want to make it easy for you to explore these authors’ stories in greater detail. So we have teamed with Amazon to offer access to their books from Retrospect. On each author’s story page you’ll see a link to their books on Amazon. By clicking through, you can support their work by ordering their published books. Your order, including anything else you buy in the same session, will also help support Retrospect.

 

Why Look Back?

We’re sometimes asked why Retrospect is focused on looking backward. Isn’t it better to leave the past behind? Don’t we want to live in the present?

Here are our thoughts. We’ve reached an age where it can be satisfying, even important, to look back at where we came from and remember how we got here. Living only in the present ignores a rich personal and cultural history that can give us a sense of wholeness and integration.

We found this nicely summarized in this poem, suggested by a friend when she heard about the site.

Love After Love
Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

 

Why Boomers?

Some of you have asked us why Retrospect focuses on baby boomers. Can’t everyone enjoy telling stories about their lives?

Of course they can. And we encourage everyone to come to Retrospect, read and comment on the stories here, and tell some of their own. This is especially true of near-boomers (who share some of the same experiences) and our own families and friends (since our stories constitute their legacy). They may also want to tell their side of the story!

But we think it’s important to focus on one generation at a time, because then we all share similar memories. Other boomers’ experiences are more likely to strike a chord in us and spark our own. Anyone can write about What We Read, but if we write about Dick & Jane (& Sally!) or My Weekly Reader, only boomers will experience that jolt of recognition.

Baby boomers (born 1946–1964) are in a unique position. Unlike younger generations, we have accumulated plenty of life experience and we understand the value of passing it on. Ten thousand of us are retiring every day, so we increasingly have time to tell our stories. And unlike our parents’ generation—whose stories are unfortunately being lost too fast—we’re comfortable with computers and with sharing on social media. (That’s why we often feel motivated to tell our parents’ and grandparents’ stories for them.) As boomers, we have an unprecedented opportunity to compile a social history of an entire generation, as told by the people who experienced it.

There’s one more reason: all three founders of Retrospect are boomers and we understand our generation best. Eventually we absolutely want to expand Retrospect to include other generations as well. But for now, it makes sense to focus on boomers.