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Memoir: The Legacy We Leave

Every life is unique, worthy of a movie about the life and times of you.

Often I write about the the relationships we have with our own challenging children. The intensity with which we focus on them for the time they are in our purview leaves little time for us to think about our own feelings. But when our children are grown, what will they have learned about their parents’ lives? What stories can they carry with them to someday relate to children of their own?

As the son of immigrants in the Midwest, my father used to regale my brothers and I with tales of what life was like in the heart of small town America where there were few like him. The story about his childhood I remember best was when he told us how our grandfather identified the local hooded KKK men threatening his family by recognizing their shoes. How? He ran one of the most popular shoe shine stands in town. Many of these men had children who played with his own. After being confronted by my grandfather’s broken English and strong immigrant sensibilities, they shrank away and never returned. And on the day my grandfather died, every flag in town flew at half mast.

I wish now that my dad had written down the priceless details about his life instead of trusting us to remember the stories, the struggles and the joys. My mother’s immigrant stories would have been precious as well, showing me how differently women were regarded back then as well as the challenges they faced. Those tales could have offered both myself and my daughter a documented version of the experiences, the people and the places my parents came from. Their stories put on paper could have illustrated the differences of life then as opposed to now — some of it happily nostalgic and wistful and some of it bitter and better left forgotten, but told just the same.

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There are a host of reasons people write memoirs. What? You think your life is not worthy of a memoir just because you were never famous? Bunk. Every life is important and unique, worthy of a movie about the life and times of YOU. It matters not whether the entire world would read about it or it’s reserved for the eyes of a precious few. What makes us interesting is both our uniqueness as well as how alike we are.

Take heart. What you write doesn’t have to be a tedious chronological timeline of your life from the moment you were born. It can be written about just a few interesting years in your life, reflecting memories from an important trip you took, painting a picture of what the world looked like to you where you grew up, speaking of the injustices you suffered, or even talking about how someone remarkable touched your life. It’s important to write not just as a form of therapy for you, but for others who know and love/have loved you. People get a sense of themselves by reading about the lives of others. When you think about it, some of the world’s greatest books and movies sprung from the everyday things that touched the lives of their authors. To Kill a Mockingbird. Glass Castles. Angela’s Ashes. The Pianist. The Diary of Anne Frank. Authors of books like these felt the need to document their own times, but I doubt most of them knew what an impact their words would have on future generations.

Stop thinking you have to be a great writer to write your own memoir. You don’t. You just have to start writing. And if there is a disconnect between your brain and the written word — either on paper or tapped onto a computer screen — simply talk into a recorder and transcribe it later. When asked about ourselves, most of us can talk a blue streak. But when asked to put it on paper, we freeze up. It’s when we are at our most real that our true personalities come out in our writing, however. Writing about the seemingly unremarkable events in your voice is when you distill your honesty as well as your humor. It doesn’t matter if you have not lived through extraordinary events, because it’s the ordinary events that make life extraordinary.

The challenge you’ll face is getting the story out of you. When we write, we often hear ourselves think. We scribble or tap, we walk away, and we come back, sometimes hours, days or even weeks later. It’s then that we re-read our own words and decide on what is most important to us or to anyone else who may read it. This is a process but a really important one, engaging our brains and helping us become more concise in expressing ourselves as we become better and better at it.

Think about how siblings growing up with the same set of parents have completely different memories and stories to tell -- even of the same event. This is your version of events, illustrating how you were affected by what went on around you. A good way to get a sense of how to tell your own story is to read others’ published memoirs, using them as a template for how you might tell your own. Reading always helps us learn to write better, since digesting the words of others aids us in finding our own. And don’t think you have to wait until you are old and gray to begin telling your story. While your tales may change over time, you’ll never tell them the same way twice, so there is no time like the present to begin.

Your story is yours. It is the intangible gift you leave to others who might get a sense of their identities through the stories told to them by those who came before. We are all “unedited offspring” — products of the times we have been through. Writing memoir can show how our imperfect selves have touched or been touched by the lives of others, serving as an indelible snapshot in time.

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