Note: When I moved to Humboldt County, California ten years ago, I signed on to teach an adult education class called "The Stories of Our Lives." I had been teaching creative writing while I lived in Santa Barbara, and I wanted to keep teaching. The life stories class became popular and was a pleasure for me. Alas, a couple of years ago, when the economy tanked and the funds for frills dried up, Adult Education was canceled, and I retired from teaching. I miss the classroom, but I think I've found a way to stay in the business. I'm planning to write a short book on memoir writing, based on the detailed notes I used for my classes. I plan to post chapters on my blog, as I write them. What follows here is my brief introduction to the subject.
Those of us who are writers must write. We storytellers write stories. Anybody who has lived as long as you have lived has plenty to write about. In the attic of your memory you’ll find a treasury of tales to put on paper. The purpose of this book is to help you mine your past, with all its surprises, narrow escapes, successes, foolish mistakes, your loves and your fights, and all the wisdom you’ve picked up along the way, and turn all that fine material into stories. This book will help you make those stories worth reading.
The stories we tell about our lives form a link between the past and the future. What happened to you when you were a teenager is still important to you, and it will be important to your teen-aged great grandchild some day. How you raised your children will be fascinating to those children’s children when they’re bringing up kids in the future, kids who will share your experiences, just as they will share your DNA.
Believe me, what you write will be important to your family for generations to come. I know I wish I could read a first-hand account of how my father’s grandfather came from Wales to Wisconsin. He didn’t leave me a clue. That’s why I’m making a point of writing stories about my adventures and discoveries, before I forget them. I want to record my personal choices. I want somebody in the future to know what I thought about rock and roll, about civil rights in the 1950s, about the Vietnam war; how I married three very wonderful and very different women; what it was like to work with words as a bookseller, editor, writer, and publisher; what I learned from my own sons; and how I once hitchhiked through Nevada in the snow. For starters.
You have stories to leave for the future, too. Tell the world of today and tomorrow how you felt about your yesterdays. What was you first thought when you stared at the television and watched airplanes crash into the World Trade Center? Were you overjoyed or appalled when a black man was elected president? Do you remember a time when children could explore their neighborhoods safely and unattended? When you could drink out of mountain streams?
Another reason to write our stories is just for the sheer joy of it. It can be a delight to revisit the past. Yes, it can also be painful, but the writing will turn the pain into valuable truth. The secret is to write with storytelling style. This book has tips on that.
Socrates encouraged us to examine our lives. A good way to examine your life is to write about the stories you’ll find in your memory. And a generous, satisfying thing to do with your stories is to share them.