Your life stories may be the best gift you’ve ever given.
By Michael Ransom
I never fashioned myself a writer until my freshman year of college at Iowa State University. I majored in math because I was good with numbers, but when my English professor penned “Superior in all respects; you have distinguished yourself” at the top of a paper I had submitted about my grandparents and their farm, something clicked in me. I “got” what writing was all about—a transfer of emotion from my heart to my reader’s—and I realized, too, that good writing is hard work. (I had rewritten the paper a dozen times to make it the best I felt it could be.)
Now that I’m much older (I admit) and wiser (I hope), I look back on where my professor’s encouragement has led me. I spent thirteen years as an IBM technical writer and from there moved on to other writing-related jobs in management and nonmanagement. In 1998, I completed a memoir about my grandparents. It was intended to be my gift to them, but it turned out to be their gift to me. That book, and the week-long Summer Writing Festival workshop I attended in Iowa City in 2001, convinced me that I could write. I had found my calling. Over time I evolved from writing about computers to writing about people; I have found the latter to be much more satisfying. The nineteen memoirs I’ve written have shown me that I love to write (or, as Gloria Steinem said, “I love to have written”), to work with people, and to guide those with a story to tell through the entire process from beginning idea to printed book.
For the past decade I’ve led writing workshops to help would-be memoirists plan, organize, and write their stories. Encouragement is what I find most people need. They often are overwhelmed by the amount of information they have stored at home and in memory, so they don’t know where to begin, what to include, and where to end. They don’t have a feel for the process or the time and costs involved, and they typically aren’t aware of options that can help tailor a writing project to fit a personal budget.
One of my first bits of advice to them is that they need not write an entire life story. That’s a biography, which is fine, but it might be better to start by writing about one era or one episode from the past. This would be a memoir. I ask my participants to come to the workshop with something in mind that they’d like to write about or with a page or two they have already written. We begin by discussing the intended audience, the reason for writing, the scope (what topics and time periods they will cover), and the outline. Students read aloud portions of what they’ve written; they learn from each other as much as they learn from me.
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in English to write your memoir. Rather, you need to be able to tell a good story. Some stories are more engaging than others; good, well-written ones make you think and feel. I am most highly complimented when readers tell me that my writing has made them laugh or cry (hopefully where I expected those reactions). One of my workshop exercises is to have students write a few paragraphs that present the book’s purpose, audience, and scope. As one of my students read his introduction to the class, he choked up and stopped midway, because what he was writing about—his beloved brother, who had recently passed away—was so meaningful to him. “That’s okay,” I assured him. “This shows me that you’re writing from your heart. Your brother would be honored by your doing so.”
During my teaching and writing experiences, I’ve encountered some people who feel they don’t deserve to have a book written about themselves or their experiences. They think it’s a bit arrogant to even consider doing so. It’s ultimately up to them to decide whether or not to write, but I encourage them to think of their writing as a gift to their audience (usually family and friends) rather than a performance. Their generosity will be appreciated and long remembered.
I am energized by those who attend my workshop. After Joe Pesch completed his memoir titled Don’t Let Me Sleep ‘til Noon, he said, “On a scale of one to ten, I scored the book an eleven. It far exceeded my expectations. I wish I had another book in my head, since it was such a satisfying experience.” Following one of my workshops, Diana Post decided to write a periodic family newsletter rather than a book—a dream she had had, but had done nothing with, for ten years. She told me, “You were my inspiration. Without your encouragement and expertise, I would still be thinking about writing family history.”
No one knows your life story better than you. Good for you if you decide to write about all or some of it. If this is your first writing attempt, I suggest you start where your memories and emotions are most intense. And remember, don’t tell only what happened; tell also how you felt about what happened. The latter may be what interests and inspires your readers the most.