Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 3, 2021
Many years ago a colleague of mine mentioned that his mother had an interesting saying: you should always have more to look forward to than to look back on.
At the time I was in my fifties or even sixties, well past the midpoint of my life. The view out the rear-view mirror was growing ever larger and the road ahead ever diminishing. But there was work, children, volunteer projects—in other words, plenty to keep me busy looking ahead.
Now I’m halfway through my eighth decade and the rear-view mirror is the size of an Imax movie screen and ahead is a TV monitor shrinking by the week.
Still, until incapacitation sets in, I believe that no matter how old, there’s always plenty more to gainfully occupy one’s time.
At the top of the list should be writing a memoir. There are many reasons why it’s important.
For starters, writing is possibly the most wonderful, challenging, and healthy cognitive activity you can do. It engages every ounce of brain matter. As the author Russell Banks says, writing makes you the best person you can be, by tapping all your skills of imagination, discipline, and creativity.
But there’s more to it than just exercising the brain. You can take up chess, cheesemaking or the cello for that. The more important reason is to capture and transmit your life story to your family. They need to know the times you grew up in and how that shaped the person you became, which in turn shaped the people they became. They may not seem too interested now, but trust me, they will later. And by that time, it might be too late to find out.
My mother was born in South Africa and was a British subject when she came to Chicago. She and her siblings worked at the family dry goods store on North Southport Avenue, just a few doors from the Music Box Theatre. As a young man my father played semi-pro baseball, taught George Gershwin to play golf, and traveled around the country selling women’s dresses from the trunk of his car. During World War II he worked in a defense factory riveting wings to airplanes headed to Europe and Asia. You’d think I’d know a lot about these fascinating aspects of their lives. I wish I did. But sadly, I never asked—and they never wrote it down.
Many people imagine writing is too hard, that they don’t have the skill. Not so. If you can speak, you can write. Just set it down as if you were telling the story to someone. It can be chronological, a la Dickens: “I am born,” is the start of “David Copperfield.” Or it can be organized around key events.
Or you can have someone interview you. Record the interview. Then you can go about the invigorating task of writing and revising it.
Another objection is that there’s not enough to write about. Who, me? Who cares? If you think your life is dull as dish water, think again. Every life is magical and momentous in its own way.
And writing forces prospective memoirists to think long and hard about their lives—what events were seminal, how they coped with stress, what they observed of history as it was taking place around them.
For a New Trier school project my great-niece once interviewed me about the Sixties, when I came of age. The changes (the civil rights movement, feminism, the pill), traumas (the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, assassinations, sit-ins, campus protests), music (the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Cream, Hendrix), technology (space exploration, moon landings, the first commercial satellites)—it was an extraordinary decade, awful and amazing. Recounting it was a way to reassess my life and times.
Since then I’ve written a memoir and several short stories. I’m finishing a novel. Writing a novel is, let’s face it, a daunting task. But anyone of a certain age can write their memoir—their story. As someone said, “The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
The journey of writing is challenging, but therein lies the formula my friend’s mother spoke of, to have ambitious and important work to look forward to.