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When I give talks on writing life stories, invariably members of the audience say their kids or grandkids are pestering them about their early lives, and they want to let their extended families, friends, and future generations know what made them who they are. Or that they’ve got stories within themselves that are crying to be set free.

But, even if you’re fully ready to start writing stories from your life, the task can seem overwhelming; after all, you’ve been a part of and witnessed countless events and amassed a lot of experience.

So, here are 3 words to help you jumpstart your life story writing project—and your memory:

Images
• Artifacts
• Lists

In this post, we’ll confine ourselves to the first one.

Images
Shimmering Images author Lisa Dale Norton writes that the title of her book refers to memory pictures that we have embedded in our heads (and often in our hearts).

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I don’t know about you, but I have images that trigger recollections and fragmented reminders of incidents in the past: The look on my father’s face when I was a toddler and screamed when he lifted me onto a bus on our way back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. (My parents must have made a big deal of the excursion, because even then, I knew that was where we’d been.)

I see myself subsequently on a huge metal table, alone in an empty room with a big, boxy, machine moving above me.

Years later, haunted by that scene, I asked my mother about it. She explained that I was lying beneath X-ray equipment, which revealed that I’d fractured my left collarbone. I can visualize the very day I must have injured it; I’d fallen off the bed while playing with my older sister.
PICNIC

What are your shimmering images? You’re not looking for facts here; you’re searching for impressions connected to your past. Your grandmother at the stove, her presence reassuring and anchoring the entire household. Yourself dancing to forbidden music in a basement rec room after school. The picnic where you met your true love. Driving home after being offered your dream job. Driving home after being fired.

These images can lure you into a meditative state that helps you call up and even relive your personal history. Write them down, along with their associated physical and emotional elements. Was there a transistor radio or boom box playing music (what kind of music?) or broadcasting a baseball game at the picnic? Can you remember your father’s exasperated expression as he made his way down the basement steps, caught you partying with your friends, and reminded you that he’d sent you to the supermarket to pick up lettuce for dinner? Was the sun hot and your car without air conditioning the day you lost your job?

Right now, just rely on your own mind to provoke memories for your stories. Since some of your shimmering images might be caught on photos or videos, in my next life-writing post, I’ll discuss how you can use artifacts to further stimulate your memory.

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6 Responses to “The Zen of Life Story Writing”

  1. Linda Gartz says:

    Wonderful advice, Lynette and I heartily agree. The photos I have in my collection, including ones from mine as well as my Mom and Dad’s childhood, trigger memories of events I experienced and takes me back to a time of my parents’ young lives as well. I’ve used them often in my memoir writing.

  2. I have a great-aunt who’s 97 next month, and has the most fascinating stories to tell! Sometimes it’s hard to get her started, though, and these sound like some good prompts!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Great advice!I think Simple joys of family gatherings include sharing our histories, however long or short, however exotic or mundane. When we write our family story, those simple joys are re-created over and over again as they pass from one hand to the next.

  4. I’d love to know what you manage to coax out of her. You might write about book about her one day!

  5. It’s amazing, Linda, how photos bring back memories—sometimes of elder people I didn’t pay much attention to when I was a child. But then I see them in a photo, and remember their voices or that they made the best potato salad or wore wildly creative hats to church!

  6. Great ideas! I’m thinking of how I can use some of the prompts with my high school students.

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