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WRITING MEMOIRS

If you've been thinking about writing your memoirs - something to leave for the grandchildren, perhaps - Stanley Weintraub has two suggestions on how to get started.

No. 1. "Write somebody a letter dealing with one incident. Follow it with another letter. Write letters to different people, if you like. You can tell them different things."No. 2. Take a mental walk around your old neighborhood. Draw a diagram of your street and the house where you lived.

"Draw a floor plan of the house, and take somebody on a tour. Remember the sights and the smells. Where did people shop? Was it called Uptown, or Downtown? What were the streets like? Were there a lot of cars? Where was your place of worship? Did you like it?"

As you draw, or write a letter, or both, your memory will be triggered, Weintraub says. One memory will lead to another, and you're on your way.

Weintraub, the Evan Pugh professor of arts and humanities at Penn State University, is a cultural historian and biographer.

"Think of your potential audience," he urges would-be writers. Tell your grandchildren about life in a time when heavy traffic wasn't a problem, when shopping was very different.

When you write about your family, describe the people. What were they like, how tall were they, how much did they weigh?

Memories, of course, can play tricks, Weintraub says.

You may want to check with old photographs and other memorabilia, or the memories of friends. Check old newspapers, often available on microfilm at your local library.

Computer programs on writing your life story aren't necessary, either. "Just think of the questions somebody else would ask if they were interviewing you."

After writing a series of letters, and drawing diagrams of the houses and streets where you've lived, you can send them or save them. Maybe an 8-year-old grandchild isn't ready for them yet.

Or you might want to photocopy everything you've written so you'll have a set for different people.

Maybe you think nothing important has happened in your life, that you don't have a story to tell.

Weintraub disagrees. "Think of the value we place now on the letters sent home by Civil War soldiers. This is social history."

Besides, "you're the only one who is the custodian of your memory. When it's lost, it's lost."