By Mary-Colleen Jenkins
Anne-Marie Farley bought a couple of autobiography journals to give to her parents. “I thought it would be nice for my boys to learn something about their grandparents,” she says. Farley’s parents were delighted with the gifts, but months have passed and so far, neither has started writing in them. Why not? The journals offer writing prompts, brief questions that the writer can answer any way he or she chooses, but both of the Flynns admit that it’s not the project that limits them as much as their expectations that it is something they will need time and focus and discipline to finish.
What holds us back? Expectations. Nerves. Lack of time.
We’ve all seen comic images of the lonely writer slumped at her desk with a pile of crumpled drafts at her feet. However, if we think of ourselves as recording elements of our lives rather than writing an autobiography, we can free ourselves of the notion that this project is beigger than we are
We are our own harshest critics; we tend to focus only on what we don’t like. Just remember that the people we are recording these small moments for are interested in what they’re learning about us, not in how we express it.
- So…be yourself. Kids and grandkids know you and are curious about you…they want to hear you “voice” not some unrecognizable academic tone.
- Writing may seem time consuming, but all we need is 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch – think of it as your writing “coffee break.”
- Consider your project to be a patchwork or collage rather than a fully fleshed-out text. Work with lists, phrases, descriptive words or small batches of sentences instead of paragraphs and pages. For example, if I wanted to capture the essence of my grandfather – whom my kids never had a chance to meet – I might quickly write a list of words or phrases that call him to mind: “Bucko,” knocking tabacco out of pipe, lighting with match, fragrant smoke, reader, joker, was he a leprechaun?, magic tricks, great laugh, big reader, squeaky chair, spiffy dresser, bear hugs.
- Free write – throw the traditional rules of writing right out the window. It can be surprising what we can come up with when we’re not censoring ourselves as we write.
- Set aside a short time limit, say 5 minites at first, then build up to 10 or 15.
- As quickly as you can, write whatever is on your mind. Don’t worry about corrections or precision or making sense or having good handwriting.
- No one but you will see it.
- Look for individual moments rather than the big picture. Instead of beginning, “I was born,” try, “I’ll never forget the day I met your grandfather.”
(One of Jim Flynn’s obstacles is his desire to focus on key point of his life “…as opposed to bits of trivia that…make no sense to others.” Jim should know that a little bit of writing goes a long way. As Anne-Marie says, “I don’t care that my parents write a lot – a little something is better than nothing!”)
As it offers a change to spend time recalling the people and adventures that made our life what it is, writing small moments is perhaps most of all an excercise in counting our blessings.
TO GET STARTED:
Listography: Your Life in Lists
by Lisa Nola and Nathaniel Russell
Picture of Me: Who I Am in 221 Questions
by Kate Marshall and David Marshall
The Book of Myself: A Do-It-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions
by Carl Marshall and David Marshall