Last month I found a snapshot of my maternal grandmother. Not dated, but she appears to be in her early ’20s. I have other snaps, a childhood photograph of her and another photo taken at 68. she is smiling in only the one picture. In it her pose is provocative – she’s relaxed, almost laughing and has one arm thrown back over her shoulder.
She looks so different from her usual stern visage. I wonder what kind of a child she was, what kind of young woman, and why she became a remote figure to some of her grandchildren. Even I, who spent three months with her when I was seven years old, and knew her kindnesses then and in later years, paid her uneasy respect.I chide myself because I never asked her about her past life. All I know is that she was one of six siblings born in Sweden and that the family emigrated and ended up in Minnesota.
In the future, perhaps, fewer grandchildren will sit and ponder over ancestors. Memoirs, journal keeping and writing personal histories have become popular. Only a minority will ever be in bookstores but all could become later treasures. Memories differ from autobiographies. They don’t have to chronological and can be shorter. Memoirs can capture the highlights of a series of events or focus on just a few years. They should why events are significant, “why you continue to remember them.”
Before or after starting writing it helps to take a course, or read relevant books. Instructor recommended books are, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King. Another is How to Write a Memoir by William Zinsser. Check libraries for articles in writers’ magazines. [Writers' festivals often offer memoir workshops, as do local colleges and universities.]
If you use a computer, Toronto’s Ryerson University offers a ten-week course on Memoir Writing especially for seniors or people working with seniors on their memoirs. No driving! The Senior Centre offers several online course. Memoir writing instructor, Allyson Latta, has more than 20 years experience in writing, teaching and editing. She says, “At its most basic this course is about sharing life stories.”
Her formal definition is, “Memoir is the written exploration of a memory.” Her Course Documents (lectures) are practical, comprehensive and easy to understand. Included in the nine topics are Why write memoir?, Building blocks for memoirs, Open up to your memories, Energize your writing, and Pulling the pieces together. The appendixes include reading suggestions and web links.
The course is interactive, and besides posting writing and comments on other students’ work there is a chat area. We have grown, by sharing honest writing nod thoughts, into an intimate online community. Responding regularly, her comments as instructor are gentle but helpful. The final assignment, a two-page memoir, will get a private critique.
The odds of a success like Frank McCort’s Angela’s Ashes are slim, but even a small sheaf of personal and family tales may one day be prized. That could mean my great-grandchildren won’t be looking at any smiling picture of men and wondering what made me happy.
Thunder Bay freelance writer Dolores Kivi publishes a weekly column in the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal for COPA (Council on Positive Aging). She is currently writing an epistolary memoir based on letters she and her husband exchanged throughout their years together.
Copyright December 2006 Dolores Kivi.
Editor’s note: I no longer offer the online course mentioned herein, but do teach one for the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.