The holidays are a time when lots of us resolve to get a record of our lives down on paper. That’s great! But before you begin banging away at your keyboard take some time to consider your goals for the book.
There are several ways to tell your story. We work with a lot of genealogists who have been researching for years and want to turn their research into a factual chronicle which documents their family’s history. Others are raconteurs who love to spin a good yarn. They are practiced storytellers who want to regale their audience with the best stories from their lives. But others seek to reflect upon the facts or the stories to draw meaning from them and to see what lessons their life experiences have to teach. These are the memoir writers.
It is with people from that last category that New York Times columnist and author of the recently released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character and Achievement, David Brooks, conducted a project that should interest anyone who cares about memoirs.
As Brooks explains,” A few weeks ago, I asked people over 70 to send me ‘Life Reports’ — essays about their own lives and what they’d done poorly and well.”
Brooks’ purpose, like that of many memoirists, was to gather “a few general life lessons” from the experiences of the people who sent in their Life Report. He made it clear that what he was looking for was not a chronological recounting of the events a person’s life, but a reflection on those events. He wanted what novelist Gore Vidal said of writing his own memoir Palimpsest, “…how one remembers his own life.”
Brooks’ instructions to those who might choose to undertake a Life Report were simple and designed to encourage reflection: “You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.”
As of this writing Brooks has received 162 Life Reports from readers. They are available online and make fascinating reading. In a recent column Brooks drew lessons from the reports. They might offer some useful guidance to people starting a memoir or thinking about doing so. Here’s Brooks’ list:
· “Divide life into chapters”. Focus on turning points, for example, crucial decisions in my life.
· “Beware rumination.”
· “Measure people by their growth, rate not their talents.”
· “Beware of generational balance.” Brooks noted, “Many of the essayists have ambivalent attitudes toward their parents. Almost all have worshipful attitudes toward their children.”
· “Resilience is a central theme in these essays. I don’t think we remind young people enough that life is hard. Bad things happen.”
· “The essays present disturbing quandaries.”
· “People get better at the art of living.”