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.

 

Lines We Liked

The Cleaver family from the television program Leave it to Beaver. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Cleaver family from the television program Leave it to Beaver. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks for sharing your family sayings last week in response to the prompt S#*t My Family Said. Here are some lines that we especially liked:

You don’t turn love off and on like a faucet.
Words and Sayings from an Immigrant Family by Rosie (thanks also for suggesting the prompt)

My parents were very different. We were never quite sure why they married in the first place, or how they stayed together as long as they did.
Different Types by Betsy

My Father-in Law, that has since passed, looked at my Mother-in Law and said quietly … “The F**K we don’t !!!!”
Untitled by Chardog

Whenever I needed her intervention with my Mom and I asked her for that help—she would always say “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”
Be Careful What You Ask For … by SusanK

On a couple of occasions he called me a knucklehead. I didn’t mind all that much because, admittedly, I was actually being one at the time.
Sounds Like Sit’-zen-zee by Constance