A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator
I recently reread one of my most-loved memoir writing handbooks, William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life. It captivates me every time and incites my passion for life story preservation. Below is a selection of inspiring or enlightening quotes from Zinsser’s remarkable book paired with my musings.
“Writing about one’s life is a powerful human need. Who doesn’t want to leave behind some record of his or her accomplishments and thoughts and emotions? If it’s a family history, it will have the further value of telling your children and grandchildren who they are and what heritage they come from. Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner. One of the saddest sentences I know is, ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’”
I often explain this concept to my subjects—especially those who received a life story book as a gift from their spouse or child. If it wasn’t the subject’s idea to encapsulate their life’s memories, they often need to be reminded of this truth—that there is great value in “telling your children and grandchildren who they are and what heritage they come from.” I recently wrote a life story book on behalf of a physician who commissioned me solely because he regretted not asking his mother and father enough questions; now, he can rest assured his children won’t face that same regret.
“I like the idea that the story is mine alone.”
Every life story book is just that. It is one person’s story alone—one 96-year-old priest reflecting on his boyhood mischief or one 76-year-old teacher reflecting on what led her to the classroom. The story is the individual subject’s alone to tell, in their own words, from their own perspective, as they remember it.
“Be ready to be surprised by the crazy, wonderful events that will come dancing out of your past when you stir the pot of memory. Embrace those long-lost visitors.”
I love the way Zinsser put it. Memories certainly come dancing out of the past when conjured up with guided interview questions. One man didn’t think he remembered anything about his childhood, but when asked the right questions, he answered with a flood of content that became a 30-page chapter that shocked his children with the number of details recalled.
“Don’t overlook the seemingly small stories in your life that shaped the person you turned out to be.”
One of my favorite questions to ask my subjects is, “Did any outwardly small moments from your childhood make a lasting impact?” This question is always followed by prolonged, reflective silence. Touching answers that make for moving stories emerge. One representative recalled how her father’s insistence that the children learn to debate one another around the dinner table marked her indelibly and led her to go into politics. One man learned the power of persistence through the seemingly mundane task of being forced by his father to sell tomatoes door-to-door. I love watching a lightbulb flash as a subject realizes a small occurrence wasn’t so small after all.
“Look for the human connection as you make your journey. Connect us to the people who connected with you.”
It’s a privilege to connect readers with the people who connected with my subjects. What an honor to connect great-grandchildren to a great-grandparent or great-great grandparent who died long before their birth. When a subject shares stories of their parents or grandparents with me, I’m honored to color that character onto the page so that readers will get to know them.
“One of the pleasures of writing a memoir is to repay the debts of childhood. It’s not enough to merely recall a teacher or a coach or an uncle or a neighbor who made a difference in your life. That’s no small accomplishment. Take a few more sentences to tell us what the difference was.”
This is one of my favorite things to do in life story books—“repay the debts of childhood,” or teen years, or young adult life. We are all a conglomerate of the influence of others, for better or for worse. Whenever someone touches us for the better, why not thank them profusely in a life story book? One subject repaid the debt to his first mentor—a world-renowned surgeon who, despite his notoriety and busy schedule, carved out time to mentor, guide, and teach this subject when he was a young surgical resident—by including ample content on him in his life story book.
“If you use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey.”
There is no other way to write forgiving, interesting narratives than to indeed look for your own humanity and that of those who crossed your life, even those who hurt you. One subject, recalling the neglect she experienced in childhood, did so with absolute grace by considering what must have led her mother to the headspace she was in during that time—the abuse, alcoholism, and financial woes she herself struggled with. This subject didn’t unleash anger, but instead raw reflection and tender honesty.
“Tell your story plainly, and its deeper truths will emerge.”
I witness this happening time and time again. A subject will share freely and plainly, and mid-memory, a deeper truth will emerge. An epiphany will strike. This was the case when one subject was simply recounting the story about how, before his birth, his mother tamed a wild stallion when no one else could, simply by being her gentle, loving self. Now, in his 70s, it struck him that his mother later tamed a second stallion—him—using the same innate technique.
“There are many good reasons for writing… One is the personal satisfaction of coming to terms with your life narrative–getting your story sorted out and preserved on paper.”
My subjects get a chance to come to terms with their life’s narrative when we take a journey down memory lane together. One subject made sense of her first marriage, another made sense of his time serving in Vietnam, yet another made sense of growing up in war-torn Korea, and another made sense of surviving the Holocaust. No matter how joyous or disastrous certain sections of our life stories are, it is always satisfying to come to terms with your story.
“If you have an honest transaction with your remembered experiences and emotions, you will reach the readers you want to reach.”
Sometimes my subjects wonder if they will be able to aptly express what they felt, experienced, and lived well enough for their families to truly understand them. I assure my subjects their families certainly will “get them,” if only they are honest and open with their memories.