Evanston RoundTable, June 3, 2020
As we wait (and wait and wait) for the pandemic to end and some kind of “normal” life to resume, as we meanwhile (in our confinement-in-place) finish long-delayed projects around the house and go for long walks and bike rides and start the 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Alpha Centauri and then wonder what else to do, here’s a suggestion: tell your life story.
“What?” you may object. “Me? There’s nothing worth telling.”
Not true. Every life is rich in the tapestry of experience and connections, well worth the chronicling. That’s especially true as one gets older. Older people have gone through so much—endured and prevailed over suffering and figured out how to survive and thrive in all sorts of difficult and challenging situations. Telling that story is important for the rest of us. There are lessons to be taught and learned.
Another reason we should collect and share these stories is because they’re vital to friends and family to understand us, to explain what shaped our character and how we’ve arrived at the person we are today.
Digging deep into our past requires us to come to grips with some traumas and travails of our life, which is a useful and sometimes even therapeutic exercise.
And it’s also helpful to explain and clarify the sometimes improbable things we did as youths, some of which have entered the realm of family lore and legend. Best to tell these stories now, since after we’re gone it’s too late to clarify and explain.
For example, as I’ve written before, Jacobson family lore has it that my father taught the great songwriter and composer George Gershwin to play golf. According to the story, my father’s mother was friendly with or related to Masha Strunsky, whose daughter Leonore married Ira Gershwin, George’s brother. As a result, my dad got to meet and became friendly with the Gershwin family. When George said he was interested in learning to play golf, my dad, an experienced and low-handicap player, volunteered to teach him.
It turned out, according to the story, that both men had a bad temper on the course. You could follow my dad’s progress, the joke went, by the wooden-shafted clubs (then in use) wrapped around the fairway trees.
How do I know this story—did my dad tell me? He might have, but I don’t recall. Probably my oldest brother had heard it from our father and passed it down to me. But sadly, I never heard it first hand as an adult. If I had I would have asked a lot of questions, like what was George Gershwin really like?
This is one of the great benefits of leaving a memoir or autobiography, to explain and clarify the ever-interesting past. Even if one hasn’t met a Gershwin, every life is unique and amazing in its own way.
Would-be memoirists may object that they lack confidence in their story-telling skills. But that’s the easy part: just tell it chronologically, beginning with your earliest recollection of your parents and siblings and relatives and good friends, and continue from there.
There are many ways to collect and relate this information. Aside from plundering your own memory for stories, ask family members and old friends to share their memories. Once the material is in hand, I’d suggest writing an outline, to help keep the story organized and on track. After that, try narrating the story to yourself as if telling someone else, an interested listener. Does it flow? Is it fairly comprehensive? Does it touch on the important personal and global events of your lifetime? Is it honest? Try to be inclusive and candid. You can always edit stuff out later.
Another way to organize the story is with a Q&A, suggesting good questions for some interlocutor to ask you.
Either way, once you’re ready to embark on the project, try narrating it into a tape player or the voice memo function on your phone. That helps keep it conversational in tone. Keep plugging away on a regular basis. Length is no concern. Conclude with the major life lessons you’ve learned from your experiences.
When you’ve completed a first draft, type it into a Word document. It’s easier to edit on screen or paper.
Keep editing, writing, rewriting, revising, honing and polishing. The prose doesn’t have to be flowery or literary, but it should be honest and thorough. Show it to a trusted friend or family member, someone who knows you well, for some candid feedback. Revise again.
It may take a few weeks or a few years. No matter, it’s worth doing. At the end you’ll have a document that tells the story of a life—your life, in your words. That’s a precious and treasurable thing.