Memoir writing, videos let you share story of your life

Memoir writing has become a major movement in this country, with efforts to capture the memories of lives lived, regardless of age or background.
Memoir writing has become a major movement in this country, with efforts to capture the memories of lives lived, regardless of age or background. Getty

Remember Cousin Everett’s pool hall back in Johnson City? He sure could tell some tales.

And what about the time we lost power for three days? I didn’t think Nashville could get so cold. We had to cook over the fireplace, but we kept our food frozen by just putting it outside – until the neighborhood dogs found out.

Our lives are a pastiche of memories – good ones, bad ones, sad ones and blissful ones. We don’t need to be famous, or even infamous, to have an audience for our memories. We have children or grandchildren as eager readers for whatever memories we write down. Perhaps even strangers will want to read what we write. And we can even be our own audience.

Memoir writing has become a major movement in this country, with efforts to capture the memories of lives lived, regardless of age or background. And memoir writing has evolved into other media, including oral histories and video on DVDs.

So how do you get started? Here are some tips.

‘One story at a time’

Patricia Brown, 79, of Redington Shores, Fla., has been teaching memoir-writing workshops for seven years for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Eckerd College. The key, she said, is getting organized.

“People don’t know how to choose their stories,” she has observed. “I get them to use notebooks to write down ideas and words that come to them.

“Then I tell them to start writing about whatever is in the front of their minds. Write whatever comes into your head.” The goal is to get started, not just think about writing.

“My motto: One story at a time,” she said. Don’t start a second story until you finish the first.

“If you don’t put limits on it, people will get overwhelmed.”

‘Dig deep’

Carol Campbell, who teaches writing workshops for the University of South Florida Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, agrees that the key to successful memoir writing is organization. She gives each student an Excel spreadsheet “that covers everything by decades: birth, parents, school, grandparents, work. It’s a work in progress, just as their lives are.

“In an eight-week workshop, we cover quite a bit,” the 76-year-old Tampa resident said. Students are assigned “homework” to write up to two pages each week. Then they can share in the class and give feedback to others.

“It’s amazing,” Campbell said.“We think we’re (losing) our minds at this stage in life, but things just come back. Memory is not as feeble as we think.”

Her directions to her workshop students: “Dig deep. Think about what is important in your life. What instances. What people.”

Many come to a workshop apprehensive about their writing skills, Campbell said, and “breathe a sigh of relief after the first class.”

Find your voice

For Cath Mason, 54, who also teaches memoir-writing workshops for the same program, the motto is “Tell it like it was.” Students at her workshops don’t write their memories, they speak them, and she records the narratives and gives each student a recording at the end of the course.

She invites students to bring a keepsake to her workshops, a tangible, treasured object that will trigger a story.

“You want your story to have your voice,” she said. At a recent workshop, a student brought in his grandfather’s third-grade reader. Inside were newspaper clippings saved by his father, neatly folded and tucked away. Another student brought in a tomato and a hoe and told about growing up on his uncle’s farm from age 16.

“Each person will end up with their own stories recorded on a (computer) memory stick. Some may then choose to write their memories, and some just share the recording with their children and grandchildren.”

One slice at a time

Another writing expert, Margo Hammond, urges her students to slice their lives into manageable pieces. As a St. Petersburg-based writer and former St. Petersburg Times book editor, Hammond has presented numerous workshops and lectures at the Dali Museum on memoir writing and how to avoid being overwhelmed.

“One student decided to write a letter to all the people in her life,” Hammond, 65, recalled. “She started at age 6 writing to her grandfather, then age 10 to another person, and so on.

“She went through her life in slices. Each (letter) was a little memory.”

People need to narrow down their lives, Hammond said. Look for ways to organize the memories. If not by writing letters to people in your life, then write about each house or apartment where you have lived, Hammond suggests. Or jobs you’ve held. Or places you’ve traveled.

“One of the things I always say in my classes: The process should be fun,” Hammond said.

People often approach memoir writing as if “you have to do it,” she said. “They feel guilty about not doing it. Allow yourself to feel it is fun and joyful. That’s true for all writing, but especially memoir writing.”

‘Tell me’ your story

With today’s technology, capturing one’s memories can take on different forms and formats. One option is to have yourself interviewed and videotaped. Dave Morrison, a former St. Petersburg Times photographer, creates video histories for clients.

He takes at least a full day to interview each client and brings with him a list of questions “that can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I say, ‘Tell me about this. Tell me about that.’ ”

Some people are more verbal than others, noted Morrison, 61, of St. Petersburg. “One woman tried to sum up her life in about two-and-a-half sentences. I had to ask the same questions in different ways.

“On the other hand, sometimes I can get them to tell stories (on videotape) they’ve never told their families before.”

Morrison edits the interview and adds images of photos and snapshots, even mementos, and music. The result is a DVD of 60 or more minutes. “Nobody tells their life story in a linear way. They jump back and forth.”

‘It’s an interview’

Some people want to learn in the comfort of their own home.

Thanks to the Internet,, an online Tampa-based enterprise with 60 different writing workshops, offers a course in memoir writing.

For people who want to interview a friend or relative and capture their memories, WritersCollege founder Stephen Morrill has a simple tip: “Shut up and let the other guy talk.

“It’s not a conversation; it’s an interview.”