In conversations with friends lately, a common lament has been the cancelation of plans—of sightseeing trips anticipated for months, family reunions, weddings, graduations. For me, it was a trip to Chautauqua, NY, to the wonderful cultural mecca there; all canceled.
I wondered what I could do with all the extra downtime while staying in place. My thoughts turned to writing; perhaps another family story, but it wasn’t always so. Though a former journalism student, after graduation there was work, marriage, a family to raise and it seemed no time or inclination to write.
You may be relating to this thinking, “I can’t write.” Or “What would I write about? Or “It’s too much like school!” Or even “It’s been too long since school.” My thoughts were very similar one summer at Chautauqua. But then I met Irene.
It was Sunday when teachers of adult classes were publicizing their offerings to anyone walking by. I noticed a sign, “When an older person dies, a whole library dies with him/her.” Since I was a senior, this quote spoke to me, so I stopped and met Irene. She explained her class was for people who needed encouragement to write and the goal was to overcome any blockages to starting to write. “Each one’s life experience is unique,” she said. It’s important to tell your story so that later generations might know something about the writer and his/her life.
I thought about my grandmothers whom I knew so little about. Because my maternal grandmother died before my birth and my paternal grandmother when I was quite young, my knowledge of them was limited and second hand. How I would have loved to read something they had written—a letter, a poem, anything. I was sold and signed up.
Once in class, I learned that Irene, a vivacious brunette, was 90 years old and currently teaching writing at a community college. The class also learned that Irene had just married her third husband. No rocking chair needed for this vigorous senior!
After we all introduced ourselves, Irene calmed some of my fear by saying nothing would have to be handed in and we could read in class or not. Our first assignment was to write for five minutes about a picture Irene passed out. I think there was a creek and a house in the distance. After a delay, I did write some words, thankful she wouldn’t ask us to read what we’d written. Next, Irene passed around an interesting stone and we wrote for another five minutes. This was followed by a short poem that we were asked to respond to, this time writing for seven minutes. After that, several offered to share what they’d written, but not me. The last assignment was a longer one; to write about a special place. We could start the story in class, add to it that night and bring it to class the next day. It was for that last assignment that I wrote more words than I thought possible. The next day was a breakthrough, as I read a few paragraphs about my grand pap’s farm and received positive feedback. I thought, “Maybe I can do this.”
The class continued for four more days, an hour and a half for each session. We wrote during class and often finished a story at night. We read in class and we received feedback, constructive and positive. By the end of the week, I was hooked.
This was the beginning for me. Each summer till this one, I’ve taken a writing class, an hour and a half or two hours for one week when at Chautauqua. Now I enjoy writing and have written a number of family stories I hope to put into book form soon. I also self–published a book, now available on Amazon. It’s about caring for my mother and my husband, both with Alzheimer’s, “Dementia: Up Close and Personal, A Caregiver’s Tale” after writing about the subject in a monthly column in the Coastal Breeze News.
Whether you think you can write or not, prime your writing genie. Start simply with a photograph or a special place, memory, a special relative. Have a tablet and a pen handy and give yourself time to reminisce. What does the picture or memory bring back to you? Jot down anything that comes to mind during one longer session or several shorter ones. Stay with your paper and pen or go to your computer and write your reaction to what you’ve recalled. No one else will have your thoughts, your special memories of this. Save what you’ve written and a day or two later go back to it. Check for any changes you want to make and include the emotions you’re feeling while writing it. Your story doesn’t have to be positive because life is not always that way.
Or follow the example of William Zinsser’s father, found in Zinsser’s classic book “On Writing Well.” His chapter on Writing Family History and Memoir starts with, “One of the saddest sentences I know is, I wished I had asked my mother about that. Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather.” Zinsser then reminds the reader that our own children are not interested in our story “until they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their advancing age do they want to know more about the family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.”
Zinsser’s father was a businessman “with no literary pretensions” who upon his retirement sat down with a yellow tablet and pencil and wrote about his family’s life going back to the 1900s in Germany. When finished, he wrote a history of his family’s shellac business that his grandfather started in 1849. When both stories were done, he had his words typed, mimeographed and bound in a plastic cover. He signed all copies and gave one to each of his three daughters and their husbands, to William and his wife and to all 15 grandchildren, whether they could read yet or not.
Zinsser commented, “Over the years my father’s two histories have grown on me. At first, I don’t think I was as generous to them as I should have been… but over the years I sometimes find myself dipping into them to remind myself of a long–lost relative or to check some long–lost fact of New York geography, and with every reading, I admire the writing more.
“Above all, there’s the matter of voice. Not being a writer, my father never worried about finding his ‘style,’ he just wrote the way he talked, and now when I read his sentences, I read his personality and his humor, his idioms and his usages, many of them an echo of his college years in the early 1900s.
“I also hear his honesty. He wasn’t sentimental about his blood ties and I smile at his terse appraisal of Uncle X, ‘a second-rater,’ or Cousin Y ‘who never amounted to much.’ Remember this when you write your family history. Don’t try to be a writer… be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere… The critical transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotion. “
Enough said. It’s time to write. Relatives perhaps not yet born will thank us.