Feast on your life. This imperative is from a poem (“Love After Love”) by Derek Walcott and it should, perhaps, be a slogan for old age. Intentionally or not, our lives led us to where we are today. Like it or not, the past haunts us – both because it was wonderful (and we miss it) or because it was awful (and we regret it). The value of writing it down in some form or another is that we look at it consciously, instead of letting it influence us in ways we might not be aware of.
I am not necessarily talking about writing an autobiography in the classic sense. And I am certainly not talking about getting published – if you write with an eye to the public, you will certainly be wasting your time. You will not tell the truth. (I once wrote a piece about my family’s summer home on the occasion of my folks’ 50th. It was lovely, fit for the occasion, but full of omissions, half-truths, and lies.) You might want to share your document in the end, but you cannot write with that intention.
There are many ways to write a “life review” – here are just a few suggestions:
1. The traditional chronological method. Start with your birth (or go even further back and talk about your ancestors) and work forward. Even if you do it this way, it may help to set up your thinking in accord with the next suggestion.
2. By life “blocks.” The traditional divisions of life are seven (so say Shakespeare and Augustine) – but yours might be different. “Childhood,” “adolescence,” “college,” “first marriage,” “parenthood” – these might all be divisions that would work for you.
3. By topic. No chronology here, but rather reflections on how different parts of life affected you over time. “Money” might be a topic. Or “love.” Or “addiction.” Or “pets.” You could divide your work by the houses you lived in (55 Bricker Road) or what you wore (The Mini-Skirt years). Use your imagination.
4. By people (or animals) who have affected your life. There might be chapters on your mother, your favorite teacher, your best friend, your children, the boss you hated, your therapist, your hero. Or your pets over the years. Out of all of this, the story of your life will emerge.
5. By focusing on turning points. What were the moments when you made big decisions that – in retrospect – changed your life? Decisions could range from whether you went into the military to what stocks you bought. Penelope Lively wrote a whole book (Making It Up) speculating on what her life might have been like if she had made a different decision at each fork in the road.
6. By turning your life into fiction. I often do this when I can’t bear to get too close to a topic or when I want to share it without fully admitting how much of the character is me and how much I made up. Turn yourself into the protagonist and watch what she does. Again, this could be a novel or a series of short stories. And don’t be afraid to fool with the truth – this is fiction (another kind of truth). You will still learn a lot about your life.
7. By writing letters. Write letters to all the people (living or deceased) who were part of your life. Tell them things. Ask them questions. You can think in terms of an epistolary novel, or not. You can decide to mail some of the letters, or not – but better to assume “not” when you are writing them.
Here are some tips on the “how.” Don’t just sit down starting at the beginning and proceeding to the end – even if you are doing a chronological autobiography. Set up folders for each chapter or category and write just five sentences in each on what the chapter is going to be about. (These folders can be real or virtual. For a good discussion of how writing longhand might make a difference, read this.) Give each folder a title that will be easy to decipher (“My first three years” or “My relationship with money” or “Parents vs. Grandparents). Then pick the thing that you think will be the easiest to write about and start there. If, after a few hours, days, or weeks, you run thin on that chapter, move to another topic that interests you.
There will be subjects that you will avoid. There are memories that we all avoid. I don’t need to tell you that these will probably be the most rewarding to “write out,” but if you start with them, you will never get anywhere. Circle around and you will eventually find out what you need to say about that huge error in judgment or devastating event.
Again, there is no need to share, but if you do, you may be doing someone a great favor. American Indians considered sitting in the presence of elders and being “gifted” with a story one of the highest honors there is. Even your flaws could be a gift. It would let readers know that they are not alone.
This week’s story, “No Change Orders,” has some autobiographical elements, even though I was never an architect and never renovated a nineteenth-century hotel, and yet…. It may be a situation you can relate to in one way or another.