Holiday Letters Chronicle a Life Story

blog20Yup, I’m one of those holiday card senders whom people love to hate—the ones who tuck an annual holiday letter into the card. With modern technology, I even print out a family photo right onto the letter. Actually, I receive a lot of positive feedback from friends who enjoy these wrap-ups of each year’s activities. I’ve been doing this since the early 1990s, taking up to three pages to humorously summarize my children’s year of growth and the various triumphs and challenges that every family experiences.

When I occasionally go back and read some the older letters, I realize that each one is like a little chapter in my life story. These letters let me relive some great family car trips, rekindle the excitement surrounding my husband’s softball team’s winning seasons and make me laugh all over again about the unpredictable and sometimes goofy nature of, as the old Reader’s Digest section called it, “life in these United States.???

As you write your memoirs, you might want to dig up any holiday letters you’ve written. Perhaps some of your family members have kept them if you haven’t, or someone may even have the ones written by the previous generation. Somehow amid all the emailing and texting, the good old-fashioned holiday letter has never gone out of style. At least I hope that mine hasn’t!

Photo: ©Olga Drozdova courtesy of dreamstime.com

Seasonal Gifts Can Add Up to a Memoir

blog19The older you are, the harder it is to choose an appropriate holiday gift for you. You probably already have everything you need. Another bangle, necktie or bottle of cologne? Unnecessary. Something for the house? Not when you’re trying to downsize. Your children may resort to coupons for “one garage clean-up,??? while your grandchildren will color yet another picture for you to stick on your refrigerator.

Since you’re here writing your memoirs, I have an idea for you. Ask your loved ones to write out a story they remember from their lives that involves you in some way. Maybe your son fondly recalls the first time you took him to the ballpark, or your daughter remembers details about the family vacation at the seashore. Your best friend may have a recollection of time you spent together that you’d forgotten all about! If you have parents, they can write or record tales from your childhood that may have happened when you were so young that you don’t remember.

When the holidays are over and you sit down in earnest to resume writing your autobiography, these stories will be helpful to you. Like a reporter, you can quote them directly, or you even can devote a whole chapter to them and include them exactly as they’re written. It will make your memoirs richer to get an outside perspective, and the contributors will know that they’ve given you a gift you truly appreciate and will use.

Memoirs Are Splashed Against History’s Canvas

blog18By their very nature, your memoirs recount stories from an entire life span and, therefore, will contain a unique historical perspective that follows that time line. Perhaps you’ve lived through a dozen U.S. administrations, several wars and a host of natural catastrophes. You may remember owning an early model automobile, watching a man land on the moon and hearing “you’ve got mail??? for the first time over the Internet. The panoramic history of the times will always provide the tapestry that brings texture to your life stories.

Reading Judith Warner’s commentary in Sunday’s New York Times got me thinking about how my own autobiography would play out against the background of the women’s movement. In quoting the book Beauty Junkies—“Looks are the new feminism???—Warner expresses the opinion that the popularity of plastic surgery reflects middle aged women’s inability in the current economy to control anything other than their own appearance. “Women’s empowerment becomes a matter of a tight face and a flat belly,??? she says.

I remember when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique topped the best-seller list. Various decisions I’ve made have reflected the many options and opportunities granted to my generation of women. My life story, particularly my career, would not have had the same developments in another era. For example, consider what you’re reading at this very moment: someday blogs will seem so 2009!

Photo: © Nic Neish

Group Gathers for Memoir Writing

©IoanaGrecu5Many goals are easier to achieve when you do them along with other people. In that way, writing memoirs is no different from writing poetry or less related goals such as losing weight, investing in stocks or quilting—you might find motivation from having a writing partner or participating in an entire group of autobiographers.

Chicago Tribune columnist Barbara Brotman reported yesterday on a suburban group of women that splintered off from a park district class on writing family histories to form a more permanent memoir writing group. According to the column, five women of varying ages meet every Monday at the home of one of the members to share their ideas, read passages from their writing and motivate each other to continue toward their own finish lines. They’ve decided to structure the process by writing one decade at a time.

“The act of writing their stories and sharing them has brought the women satisfaction, friendship and respect,??? Brotman reports. She quotes one of the group’s members as saying, “We all have kids. A lot of times your kids think your life began with them. Now my kids will look at me and say, ‘You did that?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I did that.’??? Perhaps you know a few people you could invite to join a memoir writing group. You could all bring laptops and read from your WriteMyMemoirs accounts!

Photo: © Ioana Grecu

New Book Traces the History of Memoir Writing

blog16The urge to write memoirs has long been part of the human psyche, according to a new book, Memoir: A History, in which author Ben Yagoda connects the dots through 2,000 years of memoirs. In tackling the question of whether an autobiography must be 100 percent true and accurate, Yagoda concludes that telling your story in good faith is more important than getting every fact perfectly straight, according to the New York Times review of the book.

The aspect of memoirs that interests me more, however, is the widespread desire to write one. Why put so much energy into this task? I don’t believe that a hope to get rich from publishing their story is what drives people to write about themselves. The Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, theorizes that it’s a universal need to tell our side of things—to explain why we’ve done what we’ve done. Shulevitz quotes philosopher Hilary Putnam: “We are, most of us, interested in justifying at least some features of our own style of life, in the sense of giving a defense of them that would appeal to others.???

This strikes a chord with me; most of us want to be liked or, at least, understood. The latest big-deal autobiography to hit the bookstores, Going Rogue, would not have been written if author Sarah Palin hadn’t felt the need to tell her side of what went on during last year’s presidential campaign. As you write your memoirs, you may experience some of that “justification satisfaction??? yourself.

Soul-Searching Autobiography Can Reveal Author’s Flaws

blog12Andy Williams, one of my favorite crooners, has a new memoir on the shelves, Moon River and Me. A reader who reviewed it on amazon.com wrote: “This autobiography has captured a whole, not publically well known, side of one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And above all else, I came away with an appreciation for what a really good man there has been behind the public persona. This is a story of an American Dream realized, a man, like many of us, who dedicated too much to his career and not enough to his family, who has the strength and courage to admit it.???

I like the “strength and courage??? characterization. Writing your life story in some ways is quite a brave undertaking. Even though you actually lived the events that you’re putting into words, delving deeply into each chapter may threaten your own image of yourself. I wonder how many people begin writing their memoirs only to discover aspects of their lives that shine an unflattering light on some of their choices. Looking back less than fondly on spending too little time with family, as Andy Williams does in his memoir, is probably a fairly common regret to express.

In this way, writing your memoirs can be cathartic: a good exercise in acknowledging your faults and flaws. In addition, infusing some honest evaluation will win over readers quicker than simply providing tale after tale of success, achievement and conquest.

This is Not FakeMyMemoirs.com

blog11Here at WriteMyMemoirs, we have no truth police. If you choose, you can write up your imaginary experiences as a superhero and try to pass it off as your autobiography. But I have to say that I don’t relate to that level of “embellishment.???

At livescience.com, columnist Benjamin Radford provides a short list of some high-profile faked autobiographies. Written last January, the column was timely because of the revelation that highly publicized Angel at the Fence, the story of a connection made by a young boy and girl during the Holocaust miraculously rekindled many years later as a romance and marriage, was a complete fabrication. Author Herman Rosenblat did not in truth first meet his wife Roma when she threw apples across a fence in Nazi Germany. What Oprah labeled “the greatest love story??? was more like the greatest sucker punch.

But it certainly wasn’t the only faked bio, not even the first one that fooled Oprah, who was an early champion of James Frey’s largely invented A Million Little Pieces. Our assumption with WriteMyMemoirs has been that members would be pursuing nonfiction writing. But, hey, if you want to make up the whole thing, just remember to call it what it is: a piece of pure, if entertaining, fiction.

Photo: © Gataloca

Honor Your Pets in Your Memoirs

blog6I have a friend who just moved to a place that doesn’t allow pets, so she left behind, with trustworthy caretakers, a couple of cats she absolutely adores and misses terribly. This made me realize how large a role pets play in a lot of people’s lives. I urge you to include them in your memoirs.

In fact, among the various suggestions we make for structuring your life story—chronological is the most common, but view some other structure ideas for writing memoirs here—I’d like to add using each of your pets as a chapter. That doesn’t mean the chapter would revolve solely, or even primarily, around the pet. Rather, each pet would signify a changing era in your life. Perhaps you grew up caring for a frog, spent time in the army scratching behind the ears of a roaming dog and raised your children to ride horses. You could reminisce about how each treasured animal affected you, or just recall the events that took place when your furry, scaly or feathered pal was in your life.

Even without pets of my own, I look back fondly on various other people’s pets, from my brother’s Bichon “Sugar??? (photo here) and a friend’s great, wolflike mutt “Cooper??? to one sister-in-law’s Black Lab “Woodstock??? and another’s Maltese “Dickens.??? And my cat-loving friend? Years ago she had a sultry black feline named “Obadiah??? who always will have a piece of my heart and, I’m certain, will rate a mention in her memoirs.

Dick Cheney’s Memoir Highly Anticipated

blog4Last time I talked about why it might be appropriate for some people to infuse a little politics in their memoirs. But when you’re a political figure, obviously your autobiography will focus heavily on your views. The next one to offer up this type of book is Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Scheduled for publication in 2011 by Threshold Editions, the memoir will be Cheney’s first book about his long career in government. Cheney recently told the AP, “I’m persuaded there are a lot of interesting stories that ought to be told. I want my grandkids, 20 or 30 years from now, to be able to read it and understand what I did, and why I did it.??? At Write My Memoirs, we hear that same sentiment from the everyday folk who use our site. Our members want their grandchildren to understand what life was like for them, and that can include the reasoning behind their opinions, voting or perhaps political activism.

Interestingly, it’s been reported that Cheney’s daughter Liz is the one who put the “bug in his ear??? about writing an autobiography. Liz Cheney told the Washington Post, “You have to think about his love of history.??? Backing up her dad’s own statement about the motivation behind writing it, she adds, “When he thinks about this memoir, he thinks about it as a book his grandchildren will read.???