Top 3 Reasons Baby Boomers and Seniors Put Off Writing About Their Lives

Are you among those who chide themselves for not doing anything about those anecdotes your friends keep telling you that you should write down? Or maybe it’s those personal memories you feel you ought to share with the world? Or, you might feel weighed down by a nagging desire to preserve the history of your family for future generations?

Well, if you keep procrastinating about writing your stories, you’re not alone. When I give talks about life story writing, I usually face a roomful of folks wearing guilty expressions.

I open with a question for those in attendance.

“What are the differences among biography, autobiography, memoir, genealogy, and life stories?” I ask.

Reason #1
The audience looks perplexed; some individuals shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Someone might murmur a tentative response, but actually, no one’s quite sure what the different terms mean.

“It’s easier to write about your life if you know your options,” I tell them.

(Here are some of the different types of life story writing.)

Reason #2
After I explain the differences, the most frequent remark I hear from the audience is: “How can I start getting my story down on paper? I’m not sure I even remember a lot of what I want to write about.”

Reason #3
And invariably, the next remark is a perfectly valid one: “I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all this stuff down.”

Well, in upcoming posts, I’m going to give you some tricks to get you started on that biography, autobiography, memoir, family history, genealogy, short personal tribute, or story from your life. I’ll also tell you about fabulously helpful resources.

I hope you’ll check back so you can get the “I-should-be-writing-this-down” monkey off your back. If any questions have you stumped, just put them in comment below and I’ll be sure to address them. And you might want to subscribe to future posts so you’ll be notified by email when they are published.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Family History posts.

Having trouble getting your writing off the ground? Check out my Testimonials, and get in touch with me. I can help you out.

I'd love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

I’d love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

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Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Interest in genealogy, family history, and memoir* is so intense these days it’s about time a book to guide writers working in these genres became available.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, an anthology edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland, is that book. Smallwood says she was led to compile the collection when a novel she was working on raised questions concerning writing about her relatives.

“How much to tell, how much to leave out?” she wondered.

When no books came to her aid, she decided to collect essays by published women who were also experienced in writing about families. Why did she choose all women? She recalled Virginia Woolf’s observation: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

With eight sections (including one on “Writing Exercises and Strategies”) and 55 essays, Women Writing on Family can help women writing about family stay out of court on charges of libel from irate relatives; carve out writing time from frantic schedules; approach editors in the hopes of getting published; and promote their work—whether self- or traditionally-published—to the public.

In the opening essay, “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued or Shunned,” Martha Engber takes writers on a tour of their—and others’—First Amendment rights, and offers tips on protecting yourself and those you write about.

Lela Davidson’s “Laundry, Life, and Writing: Making the Most of Short Sessions and Stolen Moments” (Don’t you love that title?) shows writers how they can make brief bursts of writing productive.

As a writing instructor, I tell my memoir-writing students not to bother writing paeans to their perfect childhoods. I won’t believe them and neither will anyone else. In her no-holds-barred essay, “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” Catherine Gildiner lists the unpleasant memories writers should be willing to excavate from their own pasts, warning that writing a memoir “takes nerves of steel.”

If you’re ready to propel your story out into the world, take a look at “Identifying Potential Markets for Family Writing,” by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, “Locating Markets for Writing About Family,” by Colleen Kappeler, and “A Writer’s Thoughts on Book Marketing,” by Ann McCauley. All three contain a host of valuable ideas for sharing your writing with larger audiences than your family.

*According to Booklist, the number of memoirs alone published over the last four years increased 400%.

If you’re up to exploring more hard-hitting memoir topics, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

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Family History Writing: Guest Post by Linda Gartz, Part 1

In Part 1 of her guest post below, Linda Gartz, who writes the ambitious and impressive Family Archaeologist blog, shares the intriguing story of her research into her family’s history and the discoveries she’s made. Part 2 offers tips to others interested in documenting their family histories.

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Discoveries
After my mom died, my brothers and I sorted through a lifetime of memories in the sprawling Victorian house we had lived in for almost thirty years. In the attic we discovered letters, diaries, mementoes, and documents that dated back to the late 1800s.

My grandmother had also saved passports and scores of letters from Europe—a mystery for thirteen years after their discovery because they were written in an old German script that few people can read any longer.

Two years ago I found a 90-year-old woman in Germany who could decipher them. I mailed her printed copies; she decoded the handwriting and emailed me the modern German, which I translated into English. (I majored in German.)

What a treasure these “mystery” missives turned out to be! I discovered love letters between my grandparents, diaries each had kept of their separate journeys to America, letters from family and friends in “the old country,” and more, each adding a piece to the puzzle of who they were and what they sacrificed to come to America. It was like entering a time machine.

I’ve posted their letters, diaries, and other documents as an ongoing story on my blog. They represent the immigrant dream.

Revelations

So many revelations were buried in these letters and diaries. Through the 240 or so World War II letters, I met Frank, my father’s younger brother, whom I had never known.  My grandmother, who was rather distant and cool to her grandchildren, wrote letters to Frank during the war that were so filled with love and deep anxiety for her son, they completely changed my opinion of her. I’m like the proverbial fly on the wall. Through diaries and letters, I learn details that help me understand those pesky family dynamics we all live with.

I have the thrilling experience of reading my parents’ diary entries made when they were very young, a time in their lives so different from when I knew them. I even read Mom’s delicious descriptions of falling in love with my dad!

I plan to publish my family history, but just getting through the thousands of pages of material makes it difficult to pare it down to its publishable core. I’m not sure if it will be a full family history or a series of memoirs, each focusing on a different theme. Finding focus is the hardest part and I’m still working on that. (See the various topics, revealed in the letters and diaries, at Welcome to Family Archaeologist.)

I admire the bold action my grandfather took in coming to America at such a young age. I’m touched by the sweetness of naive young love, and saddened by the train wrecks I see coming through diary entries. I’ve become more empathic to my family members as I grasp more fully their emotional states and unfulfilled expectations.

Come back to read part 2 of the guest post by the Family Archaeologist.

To find out more about family histories, follow Linda on Twitter @lindagartz

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Join me, Lynette Benton, on Thursday, September 29, 6 – 7:30 p.m. for a lively presentation on Life Story Writing at Minuteman High School, in Lexington, Mass.

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