Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

As I’ve written in other posts here, I teach boomers and seniors to write stories from their lives. Our classes are moving, exciting, suspenseful, and a whole lot of fun—because that’s what the stories the students write are.

My Legacy is Simply This

When new students tell me they have this inexplicable urge to write about their lives, but don’t know what to write about, I suggest they take a look at My Legacy is Simply This, a book of short essays by seniors living in various neighborhoods in Boston.

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy. Among my favorites is the story of his dangerous career, recounted by  William Boyle, a former fire fighter. As a young man, he helped quench the big Hotel Vendome fire, which killed nine Boston fire fighters, in 1972. Even after pulling dead coworkers out from the rubble, he still loved his work, especially because that day, he found his boyhood friend, alive in the debris.

Boyle also describes being overcome by smoke inhalation in one fire, and being asked by his wife, as he lay in the hospital, if he would consider giving up the job. But, as his work was one of the loves of his life (his wife being the other), he told her “No,” and returned to work as soon as he was able. His essay ends with the successful CPR performed on a baby.

Dorothy Parks is a woman who lives each day as if it were her last, as a result of the perils she faced in her travels, whether by train, ship, or air. Her essay is the funniest in the collection, as she recounts an absurd brush with death on an airplane with a wing on fire.

Holiday Gift Recommendation

If you’re looking for an engaging gift this holiday season, consider My Legacy is Simply This. Your gift recipient won’t be disappointed. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

And if you’ve been considering writing down the stories from your own life, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

You don’t have to be a senior to join my Writing Stories from Your Life class at the Arlington Center for the Arts. Just browse the winter catalog and check page 6 for a description. You can register online.
For writing tips and resources, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.
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Writing Stories from Your Life

I teach memoir and life story writing. Reading my students’ stories has given me a peek into the lives of those who’ve fought in wars or made ends meet on the home front; and of little girls who wandered along wooden floors in an old dime store, accompanied by the slightly sour aroma that emanated from the lunch counter on one side of the store.

My students have written of childhood dinners with the famous, or how they overcame a complex challenge. I learned about the life of a devastating, giant Boston fire through the life of a trolley driver, in a tribute written by his daughter.  In these classes, I get to experience the richness of life behind the headlines, and believe me, that’s the most riveting view.

Leaving a Legacy

Life stories are among the most significant legacies anyone can leave to their children and grandchildren. I wish my deceased relatives had written down the events and circumstances of their lives: what it was like when their home was moved from the quiet Florida neighborhood they’d lived in for half a century to make way for a broad, new highway. Or, how they treated certain illnesses. They certainly didn’t visit doctors as often as we do these days.

We’re Not Talking Autobiographies—Necessarily

Autobiographies begin the day you were born (or close to it) and continue up to the present. Memoirs cover a chronological period in your life, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the jobs you’ve held. Life stories are more like little true tales (although some can run for many pages).

You’ve Got Stories to Tell

Everyone’s got good stories. They’re the anecdotes you’ve told friends, who’ve said, “Wow. You should write that down.” They’re those jokes a relative told at Thanksgiving that made you laugh till you almost upset the green bean casserole.

They’re about the houses you’ve lived in or the pets you’ve loved.

Stories from your life can be about the spot-on advice you got when you desperately needed it. Or about the lousy advice you had the good sense to ignore. Your stories can be humorous. They can be prose or poetry—or even fictionalized. (One of my students is completing a mystery novel based on his work as a security guard.)

Your stories can retell incidents from your past that you’ll never forget, or slices of your family’s history.

My Legacy is Simply This is an engrossing collection of life stories written by Boston-area seniors. (Note: I have no connection with the book or any of its contributors. I have just found the book useful and inspiring in the memoir writing classes I teach.) See portraits of some of the writers.

Subscribe to this blog to be notified when I post provocative ideas you can explore in writing stories from your own life.

For more tips, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton

Join one of my lively memoir and life story writing classes. I’m always posting additional classes, so check back soon. Or just email me at Relief11@verizon.net.

Here are a few testimonials.

 

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What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 1

That's me—on a cool day

Sitting across from each other in her large, disordered office and wearing almost matching sleeveless dresses, the library director and I ignore the fact that my dress is clinging to my chest and my skin is glazed with perspiration. It’s a breezeless August day, and the air conditioning is on the fritz.

Moisture emerges from my hairline and meanders across my upper lip. The skin on my face is prickly, as if covered by a strange damp stubble. But I continue asking questions and the director answers them, for an article I’m writing for the local newspaper. We both act as if nothing untoward is happening. Actually, for me, this is not remarkable. By my calculations, I’m experiencing my fifteen thousandth hot flash.

Years earlier, when I first reported these steamy soakings to my doctor, she had peered over her glasses at me, then squinted at her computer.

“I promise they won’t remain beyond a few months,” she said in her slightly Slavic accent.

But my almost hourly drenchings persisted for four years, as I became increasingly frustrated by my body’s refusal to conform to the medical timetable.

Should I Take Drugs?
I held off requesting the medication that had freed so many women from this awful upper body heat because it seemed absurd to need drugs to regulate something as ordinary as body temperature.

But, my hot flashes had no intention of leaving without a fight. Eventually, sick of removing and donning my clothes a dozen times a day to cool off, I began hormone replacement therapy—“HRT” to those in the know.

Then medical researchers with nothing better to do than dash the hopes of middle-aged women discovered that the miracle drug could have dangerous effects. So, I stopped taking the meds two and a half years ago. My hot flashes returned, as frequent and intense as they were before I went on HRT.

“Dress in layers,” my husband said.

The difference between the perceived ambient temperature when I’m having a hot flash can feel like 40 or 50 degrees. I have stood hatless in blizzards, snow stinging my face, my down coat wide open, reveling in relief. I have lingered on my back porch in a thin tank top, when the thermostat beside me read 26 degrees. I’d probably be famous by now had I not had to interrupt my writing to strip off my clothes a dozen times a day.

If you’re a hot flash sufferer (or the husband of one), see What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 2. Feel free to complain about your hot flashes.

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What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 2

Feeble Counter-Measures

I have tried all the known methods for minimizing hot flashes. I take deep breaths to calm myself while grasping an icy beverage when a hot flash threatens. I eat tofu, lentils, and garbanzo beans, drizzle flaxseed on my food, and drink one cup of coffee in the morning. I never drink alcohol, since a mere sip makes me feel as if I’ve been on a 3-day bender.

I sleep in skimpy nightgowns with the bedroom window open all winter long. In the summer, an air conditioner and a fan blow all night.

Each of my fifteen thousand hot flashes has its own characteristics.

There are those that alert me to their slow, mild arrival, so that just moving into a cooler part of the house prevents them from developing into full-fledged heat events.

Then there are those that show up by stealth. When I notice them, my upper body is already saturated in sweat.

My quality of life has been so thoroughly compromised over these past two+ years that I made a desperate call to a menopause counselor for advice. But, what she could possibly offer that I hadn’t already tried? Hold my nose while executing a moonwalk? Stand on my head while swallowing a live fish?

The menopause counselor (flaunting her normal body temperature by wearing a thick mohair sweater and a wool turtleneck) didn’t have new tactics. But I did learn 3 important things from her.

It’s not my imagination that I have a very narrow comfortable temperature range—from around 69 to 71 degrees.

Second, since going off HRT is the equivalent of just entering menopause, I could expect it to take two years for the hot flashes to cease. (I’m now well past the 2-year mark now, and nothing’s changed. I expect to be sticking to the sheets when I’m on my deathbed.)

Third, I can take an epilepsy drug to counter night sweats.

What About All My Other Chronic Conditions?
If I had a choice of which of my many menopause-induced chronic conditions to give up, it wouldn’t be the freezing index finger, nor the unexpected allergy to wool, nor the intense muscle pain I feel after working out 3-4 times a week.

I would give up the inexplicable, irritating, unpredictable, embarrassing (imagine the impression made by sweating one’s way through a professional presentation) hot flashes.

Ah, Screw It
I don’t want to go back on medication, but on days when hot flashes slam me a couple of times an hour I know that if this condition doesn’t disappear soon, I wonder if I should resort once again to medical measures.

Or, maybe I’ll learn to view this as one of those nasty things—like insomnia—that people suffer from for no reason at all, and quit complaining about it.

If you’re a hot flash sufferer, I hope you’ll read What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 1.

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Tell Me a Story

In a previous post, I wrote that a “memoir is a story.” Here’s what I meant.

When you’re writing a memoir, or doing most types of creative writing for that matter, you’re not just presenting a collection of facts or opinions. Not if you want anyone to read and relate to what you’ve written. Not if you want them to care enough to follow your retelling.

Sometimes when boomers and seniors in my classes write about a period in their past, it turns into a paean to the great outdoors (very often in Vermont).

By writing about this period in their lives, my students are re-imagining a carefree portion of their past. So, they write lengthy—and I mean lengthy—descriptions of the fields, mountains, and the gorgeous glare of sun on snow. They might include generalized activities they pursued, or briefly mention a picnic in that pastoral setting.

But, real people—individuals—are missing. It’s as if en masse, everyone (who are they?) left the house, skiied down a mountain, or rolled in a field. There are no incidents: no one fell, got cold and had to go home, reached for a sandwich, or spoke.

Despite the use of imaginative language and a lot of adjectives, these are reports, not stories.

A brief definition of a story is “a sequence of events, one leading to another.” More specifically, the events need to show cause and effect. And they need to convey meaning.

Since it’s so challenging to define “story,” I’ll address it again in future posts—specifically as the term applies to memoir and autobiographical writing.

In the meantime, here’s a kernel from Ira Glass, the marvelous storyteller-host of public radio’s This American Life.

According to Glass, the writer has two essential “building blocks” for stories. One is the incident. The other is the reflection.

Reflect on that for a while. Or read (and see) what Glass actually says.

Now that you’ve got the basic idea down pat, take a look at Tell Me a Better Story.

For more tips on every aspect of writing, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.

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Memoir Writing Tips

If you’re writing a memoir, or planning to start one, I hope you’ll follow this series of articles on memoir writing, and leave a comment about challenges you’re facing in your writing, or share updates on your progress.

Memoir or Autobiography?
Many of the boomers and seniors I teach are working on memoirs. (Only one has written her autobiography.) So, one of the first things we do is distinguish between memoir and autobiography.

Here’s the difference. An autobiography covers the whole of the writer’s life, while a memoir covers only a single time period or a single theme in that life.

If your memoir is about a period in your life, it can cover your childhood, teen years, child-rearing years, or middle age, for example.

If you choose a theme, it can be jobs, or your discoveries of exotic foods, or specific challenges you’ve overcome—say mountains you’ve climbed, or illnesses you’ve survived. It can be anything that has played, or is playing, a significant part in your life.

Take a look at the approach my friend (and fellow member of Chicks Who Write), Maria Judge, took in chronicling her bout with a serious illness. It’s called, “Toxic, Tattooed and Tougher Than Margaret Thatcher.” Her memoir is a fabulous photo essay—demonstrating the options writers have for recording scenes from their lives.

A Memoir is a Story
A requirement of memoir writing that we address in my classes is a memoir needs to be a story, not just sentence after sentence of what happened to the writer or what the writer did.

In upcoming posts, we’ll look at the elements of “story,” including using suspense to keep readers interested.

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Teaching Memoir Writing to Boomers and Seniors, Part 2

In my last post I wrote that I love teaching creative writing, particularly memoir writing to boomers and seniors, in part because of all I’m learning from my students.

In addition to ice storms in the Old West, a nudist in San Diego, and POW life during World War II, a student who recently read a section of his autobiography to the class described the long ago discomfort between his Irish and his girlfriend’s Greek family, at the prospect of their children marrying.

He read how he ultimately came to marry his wife. Doesn’t sound soul searing, does it? But it was. His tall, lean frame hunched over his handwritten text, he cried as he read.

He happens to be a gifted storyteller, and kept us on the edge of our seats while the story unfolded. It started out light, got very dark, then broke through to a surprising, triumphant ending.

Another student wrote essays that are pretty regularly published in a local newspaper. One of them was about a trip to the Soviet Union during the years religious observance was almost completely banned there. This essay described how she slipped some devotional icons into the hands of a Russian woman, something that could have gotten them both jailed.

How fortunate I am to get these peeks into times and incidents I’d never have if I weren’t teaching these classes.

Eager to write stories about your life, but not sure how to begin or continue, get in touch with me. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you’re not sure, take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!