Stumbling on Memories While Writing Memoir

It’s fun to write our life stories. Invariably, though, you stumble upon memories that discombobulate you for a moment, or a few, before you recover enough to write down the story that just invaded your happy writing flow.

The feeling is akin to walking cheerfully down the sidewalk and stubbing your sandaled toe. You shoot the broken concrete a disapproving look and walk on to shake off the discomfort, only to discover in a few steps that your toe is throbbing and bleeding. You sit on a curb and sigh at life's ability to shift your mood so suddenly. Soon, you're cleaned up, secure in the knowledge that your toe will heal, though your favorite sandal wears a new scuff mark. You’re on your way again, but with a little more care in your step.

Memory can be like that; tripping over an unexpected recollection while you’re sauntering along doing something else. This happened to me when I was out shopping alone in an efficient, get-in-buy-my-item-and-get-out, kind of mood.

I was taking the escalator down two floors to exit a department store after picking up an item in my favorite, lickety split style, when a familiar sign in my peripheral vision stopped me. To my right was a display of Alfred Dunner clothing, fashion designer for the upscale, casual, but well-dressed older woman. I use the phrase older woman, because my sense of what is old keeps shifting into the future with each passing year, and I refuse to succumb to Alfred Dunner today on principle.

I walked to the well-made clothing hanging together with their perfectly partnered pants and tops in matching hues. It’s sort of like Garanimals for adults, “Comfortable clothing that is easy to mix and match.” These were new patterns to me, but unmistakably Alfred Dunner.

Unexpectedly, my mind was flooded with memories of taking Mom to shop. Alfred was her man, so we always moved efficiently past any other designers and made a beeline to his section. My emotions caught me at the top of the throat and behind my eyes and instantly, I was holding my breath and holding back tears that tried to squeeze their way up and out of my heart.

What in the world?! Mom died six years ago, and yet here she was in all but bodily form. I ran my hand down the arm of a blouse and smiled and had an internal (I hope) conversation with her on how much she’d like it because it complemented the last pair of pants we bought together. Her perfume, Happy, hung lightly in the air and I could feel her simultaneous approval of the blouse and the disapproval of the price that perpetually accompanied a purchase of Alfred Dunner. All my senses were on high alert and I was only barely wanting to be aware that I was alone, so I did not look around in fear of breaking the spell.

My mind raced through past shopping trips with Mom. They always started the same. I pulled up in front of her apartment and texted her that I’d arrived. She’d come out to the open passenger door and set her purse down on the floor before carefully setting herself on the seat and swinging her legs in saying, “I’m so glad cars don’t have those automatic seat belts anymore. They drove me crazy! Let’s get something to eat.” Sometimes we went out to eat at a favorite breakfast spot first, and sometimes we shopped first and grabbed lunch on the way home.

Alone, back at the clothing rack surrounded by Happy and Mom and thoughts of what pattern I’d take to her changing room next, I catch myself in this nostalgic moment and look to see who has spotted the odd woman at the Alfred Dunner section. It seems like I’ve been there for 15 minutes, but only 3 have passed. No one noticed and I was disappointed that they’d missed this magic moment. I hold still, snuggled close to the clothes, hanging onto the moment that was fleeting as quickly as it intruded upon me. I feel her warm, bony hand gently resting in mine, and I shed quiet tears.

I give myself permission to feel how much I miss her in that moment, then cherish the laughter that inevitably comes when I think about Mom and her last crazy years on this earth. She was a force of nature, that one, and a woman worthy of remembering, not the forcefulness that carried her through life all those years without Dad, but the little nuances known only to me in those ways that made her Mom.

What does a personal historian do?

Personal historians help you preserve your wisdom and experiences for the day that you know is coming, when your children and grandchildren grow older and sense a longing to connect deeply with you and to know themselves better as a result. To hear the whispers of their history become loud and clear through the reading of the stories of your life.

I help you capture the treasured stories from your own life and those memorable tales passed down from your parents and grandparents. Tell their stories now, while you still can, and give the gift of heartfelt connection, blessings, and values to the next generations weaving together a family bond that no one else understands quite like you do. If you don't capture the stories that make your family story so unique, it will be as though your ancestors have died a second time, taking all traces of their mark on the world with them.

Personal historians use many methods of recording your life stories. You can choose from the most basic, which is to digitize your slides, 8MM movies, photos, and other memorabilia and create captioned photo books. What good is a picture unless you tell the thousand words that go with it? I don't mean to be harsh sounding, but in just one generation, the significance of the people and events in those treasured photo is forever gone unless you tell their stories today. Start with 10 photos and ask about the stories behind them, then add to the collection each week or month.

Audio recordings and video documentaries are two additional ways to record your stories, each with their own benefits depending on your budget and desire.

My personal favorite way to preserve life stories is in a good, old fashioned book. Here at The Cheerful Word, I can coach you in writing your own book if you are so inclined, or you can sit back, relax, and be expertly guided through the interview process by me, Ruth Anne, your personal historian. Books are easy to share, read time and time again, and purchase for many years online or through my publishing company.

If you'd like to find a personal historian in your neighborhood, go the Association of Personal Historians at www.personalhistorians.org. We are a worldwide organization, so you're sure to find one near you. And many of us work long-distance (I live in Hendersonville, North Carolina, but am temporarily living in Germany and the distance doesn't affect the product in the least). The preservation of your personal history is just around the corner!

Find out more about The Cheerful Word by contacting me today.

How much should you pay for help writing your memoir?

Personal historians are professionals who help everyday people preserve your life stories. Your imprint on the world matters to a lot more people than you probably know. Personal histories (memories or autobiographies) can come in the form of audio recordings, videos, and books. Personal historians are sometimes called memoirists, ghost writers, writing coaches, oral historians, biographers, and book coaches.

So, how much should you pay a personal historian to help you write your memoir?

The answer to that question is like going to a car dealership and asking, "How much is it to buy a car?" (Comparison complements of our colleague, Dan Curtis). It all depends on what you’re looking for.

It would be silly to compare the cost of a Smart Car to a BMW. The same is true when shopping for a personal historian to preserve your most treasured life stories. Your memoir is a legacy gift that grows more valuable with each generation.

Ask yourself, “What is the value of my life story?” Just as with any important purchase, you take into consideration the experience of the personal historian, the quality of her work, and customer service from the first meeting to the delivery of your memoir book.

 

“Affordable” writers & coaches

Please don't miss my point! I believe that working on your memoir, however you can and with the encouragement of whomever is willing to help you, is better than not writing one at all. My passion is preserving our treasured life stories to connect us with ourselves, our families, and our communities. A homemade memoir is more precious than having none at all.

However, as the saying goes, "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is." Don’t skimp on the quality of time, attention, coaching, editing, proofing, designing, and the publishing (or private printing) of your memoir. Your memoir is worthy of the experience of a qualified professional.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. If someone offers to charge you only $1,000 to edit and print your 30,000-word memoir, I recommend that you look carefully at their previous work. Ask for a reference. You will likely be doing most of the work, if it ever gets completed to your satisfaction. Three of my clients hired me to finish a project years in the making, or to fix problems introduced by a "friend who's good at writing."

 

Professional Personal Historians

Personal historians help everyday people create memoirs they are proud to share with family and friends; possibly even sell on Amazon.com. The cost is tailored (or packages offered) and are estimated based on the hours of coaching, hours of interviews, number of photos, book design, editing, proof prints, ISBNs, and other publishing costs.

Consider how much we invest in things that are of passing value. As soon as you drive a new car off the lot, the value drops incredibly. How much have you invested in technological gadgets such as smartphones, giant televisions, or fancy furniture, jewelry, or collectibles. Those are good things to enjoy while we're here, but consider that all of our "stuff" will be trashed or given away when it is no longer useful to you. As you move or downsize, your children will hand-pick those few items they find sentimental, but most of it will leave the family. Our kids and grandkids want to know how they are like us, or how we have lived such different lives than they expected. You were a kid once too, and they'd probably never believe the stories unless you tell them! They'd rather hang on to the memories of you rather than your stuff.

Personal historians are trained to help you make that magical connection between the generations. The investment for a professional personal historian who can manage the whole project – from coaching, to interviews, and write, edit, and publish a paperback or hand-made, leather legacy book – can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. Most will work within your budget, even set up payment plans that suit your financial situation. Unedited audio recordings and short-form books up to 50 pages or so generally cost between $500 and $2,000.

A personal historian has to be a master of many trades and a consummate project manager to create your legacy life story book; one that your great great grandchildren will be proud to revisit time and again, and read to their children who want to connect with their ancestors in a deeply moving way.

If you’re interested in how The Cheerful Word can help preserve your life story within your budget, Contact Me Today.

Are you the right age to write your memoir?

A woman stopped by to speak with me at a health fair, and after I explained what it means to write a memoir she exclaimed, “I'm much too young to think about writing my memoir. I’m in my 70s; memoirs are for old people!”

On the other end of the spectrum, a college student said she'd barely started out in life and would have nothing to write about. She went on to attend the My Life Stories Guided Memoir Writing Workshop I offer and by the second week she and the 82-year-old were fast friends, discovering common interests and discussing what had become of their dreams and how to still achieve them. Both went on to write dozens of pages that contributed to their memoirs.

So, when should you write your memoir? Anytime after you've been born and can communicate really. If you're between 10 and 110 years old and you have experienced youth, growing up, and growing older, you've got stories to share. Writing your life stories brings out sometimes buried tales of adventure, joy, overcoming, and everyday living that makes you who you are today. By writing them down you discover how to view life with value and worth. 

A memoir, after all, is just a slice of life—a chapter or theme in your life that you choose to write about. Include what you want and leave out what you want, it's your story and you can write it just the way you want to be remembered. Memoirs are not autobiographical tomes of every event on life's timeline; they are boring to write and to read. Memoirs are frequently written about a significant event or a season in life that shaped you into the unique person you are today. 

Why write it now?

There are dozens of reasons to write your life stories right now! Some do it for fun, sharing with and learning from others in a workshop, then make a book of it afterwards; others write for meaningful reflection; yet others want to preserve their stories for posterity – your life really is that interesting and your heirs will treasure the connection they have with you long after you are gone. 

If not written down and preserved, your life story becomes forgotten in the busyness of life.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that now is the time to begin. Writing your life stories is fun at every age, so join me either one-on-one or in a workshop to begin the joy of discovering how wonderful your life really is to you and those around you.

How birthday celebrations change through the years

"I'm not five, I'm five-and-a-half!" cry our children as they yearn to be big. Growing older means having more of everything they want—to be heard, valued, and have more independence, all of which means one thing—more fun!

We plan elaborate birthday parties, especially for the milestone ages of 1 (a major milestone for the parents), 16 (driving permit or Sweet 16), 18 (official adulthood), and 21 (drink legally for the first time in the US). By 25, no one says, "My, look how big he's getting!" Why is there no more bragging about your age after your early 20s? What happened to that urgency to be older?

I think it may have something to do with actually living the independent life we so longed for in our youth. Friends, romantic relationships, and employers require your time and attention now and we seem to strike a happy balance in our 20s and 30s earnestly working, having fun, and often starting family life with marriage and children.

 

"I'm not 63, I'm 63-and-a-half!"

That is not a phrase you're likely to hear a 63-year-old say of an upcoming birthday.

However, bragging rights seem to begin again after age 75 when we've outrun the average life expectancy in America. That sense of pride in aging picks up where it left off somewhere in our childhood, but for different reasons. We are sometimes pleased, and often surprised to have survived so many years! I hear people say, "I'm almost 90 you know," and "In a few months I'll be 84." Depending on our mindset we also refer fondly to the group with whom we most closely relate, whether you are 50 or 102, "I'm a Baby Boomer," "I'm a senior," "I'm an older adult," or "I'm an elder."

The decades spanning our 40s, 50s, and 60s can bring with them a sense of weariness and gloom as children and friends have often left us either through a move, illness, change in relationship, or through death. Big birthday celebrations begin to occur once every 10 years instead of holding the annual party which are often accompanied by macabre black streamers and balloons. Why is this? We can still have fun!

Ellen Degeneres said, "When I go hiking and I get over the hill, that means I'm past the hard part and there's a snack in my future. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned."

Aging through mid-life takes on an urgency as we preserve our right to speak and be heard, continue to live a life of value and worth, and above all, strive to maintain our independence.

fullsizeoutput_52c1.jpeg

I noticed that families of those who are 80+ years old start to celebrate birthdays annually again, except we tend to hear, "Congratulations on making it another year!" instead of "Happy birthday, and many more to come." We do this because we think we might not live another 365 days, right? When there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren alive to know a grandparent, it becomes more important to really celebrate that person in your family who has lived so many more years on this earth.

I think that we long to hear our elders share experiences, stories, and lessons from their lives because stories connect us across the generations. We value our parents' opinions as we weather life's tougher events that they have successfully endured. Even as elders may grow more dependent for some activities, we strive to accommodate their needs with dignity because we begin to glimpse our our futures in the distance, and wish for such love and care upon ourselves in the years to come.

It is my opinion that birthdays are to be celebrated every year because each day gives us new experiences and therefore more stories to tell.

So, celebrate your years, you've earned the right to tell us about the best parts of every one!

How to make your journals into a memoir

Scan your journal pages

Scan your journal pages

Those who journal regularly do so with a purpose. We keep prayer journals, venting journals, daily diary journals, and gratitude journals.

But what do you do with shelves of handwritten journals from over the years? They contain a wonderful reflection on the stages and experiences of your life. However, those life stories will remain forever mute if you don’t condense and compile them into a memoir book to share with others.

How to start writing your life story

If you have 10, 20, 30 or more journals from over the years, the first thing you want to do is scan them all in. Imagine if a fire or water damage destroyed them. Ask anyone who lived through Hurricane’s Katrina or Sandy, photos, slides, and journals were among the most deeply felt losses.

Highlight your journals

Highlight your journals

After the pages are scanned in—we can do this for you; it’s tedious!—take three different colored highlighters and assign one color to each of these topics:

Yellow: Highlight the cheerful stories or experiences that were difficult, but helped develop your character today.

Green: Highlight the venting or any judgment or blame you put on someone else that would be hurtful to the reader.

Blue: Highlight those stories which reflect on important experiences that changed how you think and move in the world. These may include spiritual awakenings, patriotism, wisdom, love, loss, etc.

What to keep as you discover your life stories

As you highlight the copied pages of your journals, you may discover other categories of life story present themselves. Simply use a new color highlighter to call attention to these stories. We’ll sort them all out shortly.

Mind mapping

You may discover as you’re highlighting, that themes suddenly arise. A pattern begins to emerge as you move through your writings through the years. Using a mind map method, write down a theme-based word that speaks to you from your journals, in the middle of a blank piece of unlined paper. Highlight it with the appropriate color.

You will likely have 10-20 different mind maps going. As subtopics or random thoughts and ideas occur to you around each theme, don’t judge them, just write the words randomly around the theme in the middle as fast as you can. This is a self-organizing process of creativity. Put your inner critic and English teacher in time out for now.

Mind map

Mind map

Once you’re through all the journals and have dozens of mind maps strewn about, go back to the mind maps and see if a pattern or overarching memoir theme begins to present itself. Sometimes it’s a singular event or thought or beliefthat draws attention to a running theme in your life. Other times it’s a pattern of experience that is repeated throughout relationships, jobs, hobbies, etc. On a new piece of paper or your computer, begin to type the major themes and subtopics. They are not necessarily in chronological order. In fact, it’s a better read in the end if your life story book is filled with vignettes—ideal since most journal entries are under 500 words.

Let the story arc develop organically

Play around with the order of the topics and see if a story arc presents itself at this time. It may be that you want to pare down your memoir into a couple of volumes depending on the topics that segregate themselves from other topics. For example, you may begin by thinking you’re starting down a path of family history,  career, spiritual growth, or travels and adventures. What speaks to you and any potential readers is often something else altogether such as writing a book on adoption or caregiving, school times, community service, how fun and free life was when you were a youth, or perhaps what floats to the surface is a thread of life experience that weaves a storied career or entrepreneurial ventures.

I urge you not to get locked in to one title or outline until you’ve gone through the whole process. I promise it’s much more fun to allow the story to create itself without our having to control and firmly dictate to an outline.

What not to include in your memoir

There are people and experiences that color our world in a darker shade of memory. These, too, are likely found in your journals. We name names, judge, blame, and vent about a particular person or event.

Here’s how to discern whether you should include any story in your memoir. Every story must honor, encourage, and inspire the writer and any potential reader.

Sometimes, to get to the heart of a story of overcoming, we must mention a family member or friend who wreaked havoc in your life in one way or another. I can help you decide whether to consider inclusion or not. That’s a whole other blog post.

Finish your memoir

Memoir coaching

Memoir coaching

Many start, but few finish. It’s pointless to do all this work of identifying themes, topics, and story arcs if you don’t finish it. By now, you may be suffering from the all-to-common burnout on your own story. This is where professional help can get your book published, whether for personal and family distribution or to inspire and excite others by selling it on Amazon.com.

Memoir coaching

If you get stuck in any part of the above processes, I can help with one-on-one coaching customized to fit your schedule and your budget.

There’s an old African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” I say this to encourage you to finish this important legacy that will teach, inspire, strengthen, and encourage countless others including your children and children’s children who may never meet you. You are creating a lasting legacy of connection and belonging when you finally finish your memoir.

If you’d like some guidance and accountability to finally finish your memoir, please contact us.

What it means to take a deeper look at your life story

Deeper look at telling story

Deeper look at telling story

The process of telling, or creating our story can be a powerful exercise. I say “telling or creating” because these may be two different things. We get to be the authors of our past and the creators of our futures, which is more responsibility than we sometimes credit.

When we tell our story we are exploring who we are, or at least who we were. This process helps to shape our identity. Now depending on your disposition, the truth of your story may be one of chaos, strength, disappointment, courage, freedom, victimization or heroism. This is the difference between telling and creating. 

Power of story

When we look back on our experiences, we have a choice. We can choose to learn from these experiences and spin them to our advantage, regardless of how much pain or perceived defeat we experienced. Or we can become prisoners of our stories, defeated by them and held hostage by a reality that no longer exists. This is the power of our story.

Take a deeper look at your life story

It allows us to create meaning – Even if a particular event or series of events meant something to you at the time, they may hold different significance now. Revisiting events may bring out some opportunity for new meaning.

It allows us to heal – We often will take painful memories and experiences and lock them away so that we don’t have to look at them. This is an option, but often results in the pain manifesting in different ways (through illness or patterns in relationships for example). Taking another look at something that happened in the past may offer the chance for healing and growth.

Your story may be a lesson for someone else – Interested in leaving a legacy behind or something interesting for a relative to explore?  Consider writing your story and the lessons you learned from it. The different kinds of ups and downs we experience as human beings are often relatable to one another.  Writing down your wisdom for others to explore can be a valuable tool.

Story of future

Story of future

The messages we tell our selves now becomes our future – How we choose to look at one thing may be how we look at many things. What this means is that how we choose to interpret our story may impact how we choose to interpret and experience interactions, relationships, wins and losses. Taking a deeper look at our story allows us to not only see the value in it but also see how we are choosing to interpret it. 

It’s fun! – Looking at our story doesn’t have to be all heavy process, personal exploration and deep catharsis. We all have wonderful, funny and exciting components of our story to tell and revisit. This part of looking at our story can be a springboard for inspiration, enthusiasm and happiness!

Learn more about the benefits of telling your story with Synergy Consulting and Counseling, or here at The Cheerful Word.

Gangsters, Healers and Draft Dodgers

One woman's sweet father threw three gangsters out of his cottage back in the 1950s, turning down a life of crime.

A daughter discovers that mother provided more than love to her during her frequent illnesses as a child—Mom was a therapeutic touch healer in the 1950s.

A gentle and kind man confesses that he ran away from home and became a minister to beat the Viet Nam draft in protest to his father's WWII service.

Ordinary people with extraordinary stories. And we're all extraordinary.

Contrary to popular belief, preserving our stories never gets old, whether shared verbally or preserved in writing. Just look at stand-up comedy, we love to hear about the unique experiences of others, or how we can relate so closely with everyday events through the lens of some else's experience and perspective.

We tell stories every day. A child talks about her cool teacher at school who protected her from a bully, a woman tells her friends she met the love of her life, a great-grandparent talks about the many new inventions he's seen in his lifetime.

We become better known to ourselves and others through everyday storytelling. As the years roll on and we repeat our experiences to others we get a clearer picture of who we are today. I think seniors tend to be more comfortable with themselves because of this healthy type of oral, self-reflection. We become more of who we always wanted to be with age—those values that we hold dear begin to really shine with the wisdom that the years give us.

We all value relationships, to be fully known and loved. This part of our nature is the most vulnerable task of being human even with all our foibles and strengths of character. But it's precisely this vulnerable sharing that draws others near. When we tell a story of overcoming a fear or share a tender moment from an average day, that kernel of truth, that moral-of-the-story makes us real to each other and validates our worth.

Telling your stories is also infectious—ever heard someone try to "best" your tale? Suddenly everyone at the party is storytelling, feeling good about connecting in community and feeling a deep sense of belonging. Then you go home and tell your spouse what a great time you had at the party, and the storytelling goes on.

Take a moment and write down three things that made you smile today as you reflect on the memories that arose from reading this article. Enjoy!

A Man, His Wife, and a Fish: A Love Story

When I was nine, I remember sitting with an elderly man at the edge of a pond, quietly fishing with him. There were about 10 other residents of Castle Rest Nursing Home scattered along the grassy edge with a few nurses aides flitting about maintaining order.

My mother, then director of nursing at Castle Rest, volunteered me for this field trip and I was happy to go. What I remember most about that day was the hubbub that ensued when, after about an hour of casting and reeling in nothing but limp bait in silence, this man started telling me the story of his wife and their life together.

I listened respectfully without interrupting as he gazed into the pond reflecting, smiling as he spoke of their first meeting, their courtship, and a lifetime filled with life and love. Slowly, his smile faded into a deep, quiet, and tearless sadness. He told me of the day of her stroke and the hope he had of her recovery and return home, “three years ago today,” he said. She did not recover, and soon home became Castle Rest for the rest of her life. He was so distraught that he stopped caring for himself at home and soon joined her in the nursing home. My fisherman brightened a little when he discovered that he could spend as  time with her there when he wanted; and though she’d never be the same, neither would he.

He told me about all the excursions, unnoticed, to the elevator to escape up one floor to his wife’s side to just see her lovely eyes and hold her soft hands. They talked and talked, reminiscing about old times they enjoyed together. “But I would only speak to her if we were alone in her room,” he said, looking straight at me, nearly knocking me off my little plastic chair with the force of the look in his eyes.

“It was not for them to know our stories. Those are our memories and I didn’t want to share us with anyone else, so I kept her to myself. I see her nearly every day, and I miss her every hour. With a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “soon, we’ll be making trouble again together. But not here; no sir. When we’re free to run about, laugh out loud, and tend to our garden together.”
This is when I noticed the hubbub around us building.

As I sat listening, I watched his bobber pull under the water, and it seemed urgent that I tell him he caught a fish, but we were both too mesmerized by his story to care. I laughed along with him as he began to reel in that fish that kept tugging on his line.

Then I heard yelling in my ear, “What did you do to Mr. Joe?! Why is he laughing? what’s he saying? What did you do?!” Suddenly, a swarm of aides and some nimble elders tightened the circle around us making all sorts of loud remarks. All I could think of was that they should all get out of the way so he can get his fish off the hook. What was the big deal?

I was shuffled away, confused, and watched from a distance while they tended to Mr. Joe who was trying to get his fish into the bucket and no one would help him. I know how to take a fish off a line, why didn’t they let me help?! Soon we were all escorted back to the bus heading back to Castle Rest. Mr. Joe caught my eye across the isle, and his eyes were silently smiling, glistening, and twinkling with some mystery he kept to himself.

The next day, I went in to find him and ask him what happened at the fishing hole and I learned that Mr. Joe’s wife had died several days before that trip. Nurses ad aides were still asking me what I did to him, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I went to his room, which was eerily clean and empty. It turns out that he joined his wife in death just hours after catching that fish. I also learned that he hadn’t spoken a word to anyone on the staff in the three years he lived there with her.

Joe had gifted me with the personal history of a beautiful life with his beloved wife. I imagined them laughing together in the garden, tending to the flowers she so loved, followed by a perfect fish dinner.

Joe’s story marked my official entry into the passion called personal history, and I look forward to thanking him and his wife someday as I pass through their garden tended with love.