While many seniors at one time or another think about writing a memoir, many are discouraged by a lack of confidence in their writing ability, or are of the opinion that their stories are not interesting enough. Nevertheless, taking suitable time to write down stories from your past is well worth the effort, whether the final result is a publishable work, or a well organized collection of memories to share with your family and friends. You don’t have to be a seasoned writer to create a memoir that will permit your history to live on in a substantial and beneficial way. There are many emotional and cognitive advantages to turning memories into a personal account. Retrieving old memories enlivens neural pathways which is thought to have a protective effect on cognition and recall. Writing stories turns on many sections of the brain including the language, visual and emotional centers. Writing memories into a memoir presents the opportunity to view your history through a more focussed lens, which can help in the processing and reframing of adversity and despair.
Writing down one’s life story can be very intense, and the process of writing is just as important as the final result. In writing, older adults can unearth their voice, discover a sense of importance and cultivate a renewed connection with self. They can gain a fresh perspective, reframe their stories, search out new levels of forgiveness, and connect with a genuine feeling of gratitude. Writing one’s story can serve to resolve old issues, pass on important life lessons and portray a unique time and place in history. Here are some guidelines from geropsychology and aging specialist, Kristen Hultgren, in Psychology Today for embarking on the journey of passing on your experience and culture to younger generations.
Getting started: You can record your story using pen and paper, typewriter or computer, audio recorder, video recorder, scrapbook, or even mixed media and collage pieces of artwork. You can decide to record your story in privacy, or you might ask a friend or family member to write down your story as you speak. Many seniors join a structured memoir writing class which includes the guidance of writing prompts, the coaching of a trained facilitator, the pleasure of hearing the stories of others, and the mastery of writing and sharing one’s own story with a live audience. Writing groups serve to decrease isolation, revive dormant interests, offer purposeful assignments, and sharpen cognitive skills. Getting started often involves evoking memories through talking with family and friends, studying old photographs, reading old postcards and letters, and digging around for old recipes that remind you of special celebrations and family dinners from the past. As you begin to acquire old memories with more clarity, you can start the writing process which almost always takes weeks or months.
Write each decade as a chapter: Many older adults find it helpful to remember their story in decades (the first chapter covers ages 0-10, the second chapter 10-20, and so forth). Other seniors would rather label each chapter by important location (84 Charing Cross Road, London), by important events (school years, married years), or by personal and meaningful symbols. However you choose, building your story using chapters will produce a logical framework so you can work on one chapter at a time and proceed with adding important memories as they come to mind.
Personal and family history: In each chapter, take the opportunity to tell stories that are significant to you and write down recollections from that period of time with as much detail as you’d prefer. You may also choose to ask yourself the following questions: What were you doing at the time (i.e. studying, parenting, building a professional career)? What did you like/dislike about it? Who were your close relationships? What were those relationships like? What did your parents do for work? What types of things did you enjoy? Answers to these questions will help to sum up your unique personality and giving thought to these personal and family stories can be very enlightening.
The spirit of the time and significant life events: In addition to considering personal and family history, many people take pleasure in reflecting on the “spirit of the time” as well. Topics may include: the economy, politics, culture, and historical events. You may wish to ask yourself questions such as: What did an average family look like at the time? What did people believe in? How did your family view money? How much did it cost for a loaf of bread? In accomplishing this, you are able to pass on a snapshot of history to your audience and revisit with values and ideas from your past.
Include life lessons and perspective gained throughout: It is helpful to reflect on “lessons learned” and how your perspective has changed over the years. These themes can run through each chapter and don’t need to be well articulated or deeply insightful, rather they just need to show evidence of your unique journey. Some questions you may consider: How did this experience shape me? What was my belief system at the time? How did I view the world during this chapter? What three values were most significant at that point in my life?
Reflection and giving thanks: The research from “Positive Psychology” underpins the benefits of feeling truly thankful for something — it bolsters your health, your attitudes, your relationships, among others. When you have the time and opportunity, sit back and reflect on your experiences, both good and bad. During this process, many feelings may come to the surface and you may feel genuinely amazed at how your life has unfolded and you may experience a sense of awe at the life you have lived. You may feel thankful for people who have crossed your path, and for your life journey and where you have landed. Take time to experience any feelings of gratitude, let them wash over you, and then keep moving forward when you feel emotionally prepared.
Make it social: Whether you write your story alone, with a partner, or in a memoir writing class, make plans to discuss and share your story with others. If you reside in a senior community, invite other residents to write and discuss their life stories, even if you only read a single chapter at each meeting. Bring your story to a book club or trade stories with friends and people living in your neighbourhood. Many older adults copy and distribute their stories to family members, often using special occasions as an opportunity to connect. Inviting others to engage in your story enhances the interaction for all involved.
Imagine the next chapter: Your life story does not end when you complete your life review. Instead, the next chapter begins and you can take time to imagine what you will write following this. Take stock of the strengths you bring to your life. As with each chapter of your memoir, your cast of characters, talents, and perspectives may change and that realization may feel unsettling and discouraging. Your life story would be uninspiring, however, if you never had to cope and adapt to new circumstances. But you’ve already refashioned your life many times over, and time and again you have shown resilience, wisdom, knowledge, strength, and a new found perspective. In this next chapter, how will you share it with your audience?
One of the elements of a life well lived must assuredly be the stories, experiences and memories that are told, retold, remembered and re-experienced throughout one’s life span. Memoir writing captures the invaluable and the heartbreaking, the truly unforgettable and the oddly remembered, the historic and the unusual. These human tales leave a legacy of living history for future generations. And they can bring pleasure, satisfaction and closure in the last stage of life.