Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

Click the cover image to learn more about the book.

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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Supercharge Your Life Writing with These Ideas

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

The main branch of my town library invited three instructors to lead creativity workshops for folks 50+ years old. I had the pleasure of running the workshop on memoir and life story writing with three different groups of participants.

I’d worried beforehand that the evening was packing too many activities (drumming, collage making, and writing) into too short an amount of time, that people would be exhausted halfway through the activities, and saunter home to bed before it was over.

But the night crackled with excitement. One man even shouted, when I said we only had a minute to go, “But you promised us 4 more minutes!”

After writing the difference among autobiography, memoir, life stories, family history, and genealogy, on an easel, I handed out prompts to get people writing right there in our section of the children’s library.

Life Story Writing Prompts

Here are a few of the writing suggestions I provided participants. At the end of this list, you’ll see the ones most people chose.

  • the first house you lived in, as a child
  • something you’ve struggled with for years
  • myths prevalent in your family, for example, “She’s the pretty one, he’s the smart one, this other one is the athletic one.”
  • what your birth order meant in your family
  • your favorite jokes, and why you love them
  • a near miss in your life
  • a time when someone didn’t stand up for you
  • a secret you discovered
  • Complete the phrase: “I thought I would be more (or less) _____________by now.”

Of these, most people wrote about their first house, something they’ve struggled with, their favorite jokes, or “I thought I would be more (or less) __________ by now.” The birth order prompt generated intense, and even hilarious, discussion when those who wrote on that topic read their pieces to the group.

Participants also wrote about:

  • an accomplishment they were proud of
  • a trip they took that revealed something, and
  • why they love writing—or hate it

Subscribe to this blog to be notified when I discuss “a secret you discovered” in a post about writing family histories.

Get inspired by excerpts from life stories by Boston seniors.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Writing Stories from Your Life.

Maybe you’ve got the stories, but you’re 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.

 

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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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The Making of a Writer

 

That's me

I Had It All Wrong

My early fantasies of the writing life bore no relation to reality, saturated as they were with a determined sentimentality. I must have gotten my ideas from photos I came across in which writers were always pensively portrayed in workspaces that overlooked meadows and streams drenched in dappled sunlight.

I envisioned these writers living in unearthly serenity, happily insulated—probably by wives. Since I wasn’t a man, nor had I a wife, I don’t know who I thought would be earning money for me or handling life’s bothersome details—which admittedly were less onerous 25 years ago—while I was gazing out on a verdant landscape from my writerly haven.

By the time I moved to Boston in my early twenties, I was penning stories and essays, which I rarely completed. I know now that that was because I knew neither how nor where to publish them. I’d had it drummed into me that it was virtually impossible to get anything in print if you lacked important contacts. Publishers, I was told, were terribly selective, and no one understood exactly how they weeded people out. But, weed me out these disapproving, deskbound gatekeepers would.

I Get Make My Start

So, I read a great deal, and I wrote all those things I didn’t complete. But now I see they were all practice. I was learning to write better and building up my confidence until one day, I offered to write brief reviews for a regional art paper. I doubt if I formally queried or got paid for those reviews, but I got my name in print.

A local feminist paper let me write my first feature article. In the end, I was dissatisfied with the piece, because it didn’t accurately reflect my views. Even the photo they took of me on a neighbor’s lawn (well, here at least was my pastoral setting) was unflattering. But the experience took me from writing for myself to writing for others, and I learned to work with editors.

My town library needed someone to promote a literary lecture, so I interviewed the Cape Cod author and submitted a feature article, which was published in the local newspaper.

All the while, I took writing classes.

I Arrive at My Goal

I produced a blog offering creative writing tips for my alma mater. I wrote, under pseudonyms, first-person columns and an article about being overworked for two national higher education papers. Then I had an essay published in a women’s paper that’s circulated in a number of cities. More Magazine online published my essay about joyfully leaving organizational life to teach creative writing.

I managed to become a writer, publishing two dozen articles and essays, even though I had no idea how to do it. As writers, we have to make our own opportunities, and now more than ever before, we can do that.

The Real (and Rewarding) Writing Life

Neither I, nor anyone else, ever foresaw the major publishing houses disappearing or morphing into something else, with even greater strictures against risk taking. Who guessed that a writer would need a strategy as sophisticated as a business plan to get published? (And I thought it was hard to get published way back when!) Who suspected that we writers would have to learn to repair our computers, sometimes moments before a deadline, and distribute our work on things called web sites, and use keywords and tags, Facebook, Twitter, digg and delicious?

But at the same time that we couldn’t imagine the Internet, we couldn’t imagine that we’d perhaps be discovered electronically by a total stranger who might be an agent or an editor. Or, we can bypass them, distribute our own work, and maybe be discovered by them after the fact.

All this has liberated writers from those unknown publishing house denizens as remote and incomprehensible as the anonymous authorities in a Kafka novel.

I teach writers the tricks of our trade, so that these teens, parents, engineers, business owners, and military veterans don’t have to spend decades, as I did, figuring out how to publish the work they’ve waited a lifetime to see in print.

And there’s another benefit of being a writer today: if we post our work on sites we control, then realize we haven’t said what we meant, we can correct or replace it altogether. That’s professional freedom.

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Do You Shy Away from Writing Classes?

My niece is a stunning adult with a classic style. But, when Osula was a child, she went through a fashion phase I might call, “if-you’ve-got it, wear-it.” The adults in her life held our breath until the stage passed.

At four years old, she liked to don a polka dot skirt, paired with a wildly printed shirt, horizontally striped tights, and finish everything off with an oversized, ugly fish medallion that hung to her waist. And you could not tell her she didn’t look good.

Although she outgrew that stage, sadly, many beginning writers haven’t, when it comes to their work. I hear aspiring writers announce that they are writing a novel, or crafting a screenplay, or halfway through their memoirs. No one outside of their friends and family has given them honest feedback and direction on their manuscript.

Apparently that happens with some contestants for American Idol: they audition on the basis of praises from those whose love blinds their judgment. The audience and judges listen to these performances, wondering how folks so tone deaf could consider themselves serious contenders with those who are talented, practiced, and prepared to compete.

I teach writers and edit their work. They pay me for impartial criticism and support. It’s the writers who write badly, but don’t take classes, or join rigorous writing critique groups, who baffle me.

Often a writer just needs to be alerted to a “tic,” a habit that’s crippling the manuscript. They may only need to be shown the tricks accomplished writers use to enliven their work and make it “rise up off the page.” I have students whose writing improves noticeably in just a few weeks. They simply hadn’t been aware of certain writing tactics before taking the classes.

So, why do so many beginning writers assume their work is the next bestseller? If they haven’t learned how to make dialogue sharp, how a scene is crafted, or a story is structured, or they don’t know basic grammar, their work is doomed to a silent death, even if they self-publish it.

Who would try to perform in a professional recital without taking classes, or expect to excel at a sport without intense coaching? So, why would anyone offer their book to the public, before learning the nuts and bolts of creative writing?

The competition to be published is brutal. We writers have to give our work every possible edge. That means learning and practicing the craft that supports our creativity and originality. There are no short cuts, unfortunately, or we’d all be using them!

Do you take your craft seriously enough to make a point of learning how it’s done by the published pros? Do you take writing classes, and if so, what worked and what didn’t?

If this post unsettled you, take a look at “Calm Down! It’s Just a Draft.”

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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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Is it Memoir or Family History?

A student in one of my creative writing classes for boomers and seniors asked, “Do you have to be the main character in your memoir?”

“Yes,” I responded. Then I paused and said, “Let me think about this.”

I was facing a dilemma that had been skirting around the edges of my creative consciousness for months. You see, I’ve been writing two books that I call “memoir.” But these two “memoirs” feel quite different from each other, and not just in subject matter.

At first I thought they were different because one (“My Mother’s Money,” or perhaps I’ll call it “Almost an Heiress”) is unresolved, while the other is resolved; it’s over. But there remained something else that made them feel as if they belonged to two different genres. My student’s question brought my discomfort about labeling these two books to the fore.

“My Mother’s Money” is an exploration of my family’s utterly byzantine way of handling and bequeathing money. Although I make appearances in the story, I’m a minor character, more of an observer, bystander, or unfortunate victim.

In the other memoir (thus far, unnamed), which is about my insane experiences working for 11 bosses in 11 years at a single institution, I’m the main character. I’m not only telling the story, I’m driving it.

I’ve got a ton of books about memoir, so I’ll be doing some research on this question. I hope to be able to share answers in my next post.

In the meantime, do you feel “My Mother’s Money” is a memoir, a family history, or what? Have you faced a similar blurring of genre lines in your writing?

_________

If you’d like help writing your memoir or family history, I can help. Check out my Testimonials, then use the Contact tab to get in touch. I’m experienced and easy to work with, and my references are superb.

Twitter: @lynettebenton

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Memoir Writing Teaches Us About Ourselves

If you’ve begun writing a memoir, you might have noticed that the process is revealing aspects of yourself and your past that you failed to recognize before.

It’s a little like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that you’re still seeking all the pieces to and slowly beginning to understand their relationship to one another.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, much of my writing is about work. I’ve had an enormously checkered work life; writing the memoir is forcing me to figure out the “whys” of much of it.

For example, when I first began working while I attended college, I was totally unprepared for the business world. It wasn’t until my memoir writing partner asked, “Why?” that I began digging into the reasons.

For one thing, I’d graduated from high school when I was only 16. For another I held an academic degree, so I didn’t know anything about office work—just about the only type of work that was available to women in the 1960s. I had been turned down for a job as a stewardess by a bemused woman who told me, “I’m very sorry, but we don’t hire Negroes.”

But there was more to it than that. It had something to do with the way I was reared—and the fact that my expectations and those of my parents for me were vague and conflicted. And that’s what I’ve been exploring.

When I teach writing to boomers and seniors, I encourage them to dig into their pasts to locate the truths beneath the myths we all grow up with.

That’s the best (though often unsettling) way to convey who we really are.

If you’d like help writing your life stories or memoirs, check out my Testimonials, then use the Contact tab to get in touch. I’m experienced and easy to work with, and my references are superb.

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!

Does Your Memoir Cheat Your Readers?

In memoir writing, it’s critical that we invite our readers to relate to our life stories. If we don’t, we are cheating them out of the very reason they bought our books—to share our experiences.

Here are some of the memoir and life story writing tips I ask my students to keep on their desks beside them as they write.

Create scenes.
Scenes help reveal the characters’ personalities. (Yes, your memoir needs characters.) A scene takes place in one location. It contains dialog, action (or gestures), and emotion. Most scenes involve conflict.

Be specific.
When writing is general or is burdened with adjectives, it lacks power. It’s also weak when it relies heavily on words like “very” and “nice.” Banish them in favor of words with heft.

Share your feelings and insights.
Don’t focus only on what happened. You’re not just an objective observer. Share your thoughts, feelings, and opinions about your experiences. You’re the main character. Be there. (Boomers and seniors often have trouble with this one, since we learned to keep our real feelings to ourselves.)

Involve the readers’ senses.
Include sights, smells, tastes, touch, and sounds to make your writing come alive. How did the fried chicken taste at those Sunday dinners on the farm? What noises did came in from the street outside your city apartment? How did the chairs at your grandmother’s house feel? Were they stiff, or did you sink softly into them?

Think about the writing that appeals to you, moves you, draws you into the author’s experience. You’ll recognize that these are the tactics those authors employ to take you out of your world and into theirs.

Note: I can’t take credit for coming up with all of these tips. I’ve assembled them from the dozens of books, articles, and web sites that I use to teach memoir writing.

More tips are on the way in future posts.

In the meantime, take a look at “Tell Me a Story” and “Tell Me a Better Story.” They offer additional guidance.

If your writing seems flat, or you aren’t even sure how to begin writing, get in touch with me. I’ll help you out. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If don’t believe me, 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!