Stages of Memoir-Writing

39809046 - the text what's your story appearing behind torn brown paper.

Most of us aren’t famous for anything, except perhaps among our immediate family. In our Third 30, many of us want to write and reflect on past memories and experiences, especially in January when we face the New Year with the imagery (or mirage) of a fresh start. It’s a personal therapeutic journey. Writing memoir is a lot like organizing those boxes of photos all jumbled together in the top shelf of the closet. You begin to sort out the memories, like photos, organize them, interpret them, make some sense out of them, preserve them for posterity.

Many of us turn to professionals for assistance with this process. I’ve done the same many times. I find in most of these undertakings, that the leaders of the workshop or retreat or class have assumptions about why everyone is there — assumptions about why we “should” write and what our objectives might be. Sometimes I feel like the leaders of the sessions might think that if the objective is not to publish, then you are wasting their time. People have different reasons for writing memoir, and I think it’s important for people leading writing groups to understand and accept that objectives vary, and that the objectives can change over time.

Here is my understanding of the stages we go through as we sort memories…. (and photos…) and write about our past experiences:

  1. You decide you want to write about your life, but mainly just for yourself  — an exercise in self-reflection. You begin writing a few pieces… birth, childhood, school experiences, first job, first heartbreak… you write irregularly.
  2. You find you don’t write as often as you’d like, so you join a writing group. You meet once a week or so, and find yourself writing more often. Progress is made on writing many small pieces about your life. You begin to share some of those pieces with family and friends. Some actually read the pieces and like them. You feel encouraged.
  3. Some years later, you realize you have a couple hundred pages of text (about 300 words per page). You decide to organize the small pieces into a bookYou print it out, make copies, take the copies to Kinko’s for binding, and give them to some of your family members who have requested The Book. You feel “finished” with the memoir. But you keep writing because the group is fun and you have a few more things you’d like to write about your past. And anyway, some of the dicier pieces you did not include in the book. You feel you understand yourself a bit better.
  4. You take some writing classes and workshops and decide you might want to find your theme and try to publish The Book. Time goes by. A ton of rewriting and editing happens. You work with someone to move in the direction of publishing. The Book is published. Now you are really finished with it.
  5. Oprah picks up your book. You have to do a book tour; learn how to speak in public. Your book is optioned for a movie starring someone who does not look remotely like you did when you were young. You figure the movie is going nowhere because there’s no sex, booze, or drugs. However…
  6. Something about the movie wins an Oscar so you get to attend the Oscar ceremonies! Now, you’re really done! Maybe… you should start on a novel…

Each of these stages can be an objective in writing. Perhaps, even, your objective is to have a “writing life.” Does that mean, to make a living from writing? Good luck with that idea, but some people do just that. Some people also win lotteries. Does having a “writing life” mean you have to make money? What if making money is not the objective? Perhaps just writing is the objective.

Be clear about your objectives as you begin writing, and recognize that you can change your mind over time.



Sankofa — looking back to look forward

There is a Ghanaian Akan proverb associated with the Twi word “Sankofa” that summarizes why some of us write memoir. The proverb is: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The word “Sankofa” literally means “to go back and get it.” I’ve only begun reading about this cultural concept since stumbling across the word “Sankofa” and following links to read more. I have not been to Ghana, but I’ve lived and worked in several other countries on the African continent, and I like to read about culture and history from different parts of Africa. The Sankofa idea spoke to me as a memoir writer.

I’ve been encouraged by the idea that it is good to look back and remember so that moving forward is well-informed. At the beginning of my Third 30, I’m reviewing my memoir pieces and thinking a lot about the writing group I led for five years when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m no longer there and the writing group is continuing under new leadership, but during those five years, our group wrote and shared hundreds of memoir pieces – hundreds of stories. I’ve gone back in my memories and retrieved more than half a century of stories, typed them into Word, backed them up, and printed them. And I’ve told people that one of my major activities in retirement (my Third 30) is to compile these memories into a book that will be a bit more organized than the 400 or so pages I’ve written so far. Some people seem confused by the idea that an anonymous person (not famous) would bother to write memoir. Others seem to think that writing memoir is narcissistic. I don’t at all believe that it’s a waste of my time to write about my life, especially now with more than half a century of perspective and with time to do so.

In fact, I was working full time during those five years of writing memoir with my writing group. So, it’s possible to write and reflect even when you think you don’t have the time. We all have stories to tell! Our stories are not narcissistic, or bragging, or self-serving. Our stories are our gifts to the future – who we were, what we did, and what we did with our lives. They are perhaps even more important simply because none of us are famous for anything. Our stories provide the personal insight and description and interpretation that may somewhere, sometime, somehow, make a difference to someone else – perhaps someone we couldn’t even possibly know.

It’s the stories of ordinary anonymous people that need to be told and preserved by those people themselves.

We all do have stories to tell. But most people never write those stories down, or type them out, or record their voices. My dad did, but not my mother, or my grandparents, or my aunt or uncle. Only my dad’s story remains, and it’s only part of his story as he never continued his descriptions past his early 30s. But at least I have his earliest years written in his hand — his memories and his photographs preserved safely. He told at least part of his story.

I hope to do a better job preserving my own stories for whoever might read them in the future.

This is a traditional symbol of Sankofa. The bird is looking backwards, taking an egg from its back. It symbolizes taking what’s good from the past and bringing it into the present “in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.” Says Wikipedia.


sankofa bird


Longevity and the next 30 years

Within the past year, I looked online to see how long I might live.

The results were sobering – ranging from 86 to 96 to 102! Since I’m just now turning 66, that means I might have 30 years left – my Third 30. What will I do during those years?

A Social Security info sheet says that “the typical 65-year-old today will live to age 85;” more than a third of us will live to age 90 and one in seven will live to 100. So, maybe I have 20 years; maybe 30 years. But let’s say I’m beginning my Third 30, just for fun. I had a paternal grandmother who lived to 100 and a maternal great grandmother who made it to 93. Genetics is on my side.

To kick off our Third 30, my husband and I both retired, downsized our stuff, sold our house in the upper Midwest, moved back to the east coast, bought 3.7 wooded acres in a rural county, and are building a cozy compact house. Those were many changes in a relatively short space of time, but we remain upbeat, energetic, and excited to have exactly the kind of one-level living we think we need at this stage. We hope this will be our last house, although considering our past behavior, perhaps not. My personal nomadic existence has historically involved 9 states, 2 foreign countries, 19 cities, and 30 dwellings – all in 66 years. Together, we have owned five houses ranging in size from 1,000 sf to 4,200 sf (not at the same time). This last house will be a little over 2,500 sf including guest rooms for our grown children’s visits.

We make frequent visits to our trees on a slope where the house will eventually sit. I imagine waking up in the morning looking at trees outside my windows, and wandering out to the screened porch to drink coffee. If we live there for many years to come, what will I be doing during my time there, once the building project is done, we are moved in, and everything is unpacked?

These questions are obviously not unique to my husband and me. All retirees face similar questions but maybe fewer realize how long they might be around to contemplate their Third 30. No, I don’t regret my decision to retire at age 65, and I have many interests but still… how will these Third 30 years play out?

I will think about all this in my blog, but right now, I’m heading out to walk my 3-mile circuit. The weather is lovely and it’s still cool.


Family photograph from before 1927 when my grandmother (X marks her) died from pneumonia. Next to her is one of the twins — either Olive (my mother) or Rose (my aunt). It’s possible that the lady in the lace cap is the relative who lived to 93. Also possible that the man to the far left is my grandfather who I never met.

2301 Chamberlain Ave for sale!

The house across the street from ours is for sale after several months of renovation by a local builder. Here’s the description: “This 1902 charmer is set on a beautiful corner lot in the desirable University Heights neighborhood. Spacious, private yard, new patio, established trees and garden plants. Fully restored home with the character you love and the modern amenities you desire. Refinished floors, designer kitchen, brand new windows and roof, updated electrical and plumbing. Master with en suite bathroom, first floor laundry. 2 car garage with large driveway.” We saw the house a year ago, just after the owner passed away [it was in bad shape]. The property was purchased by a builder who has done an incredible renovation job! They had an open house last week for the neighborhood, so we were able to tour the transformed house. It’s quite amazing! There are 3 bedrooms upstairs and 2 bathrooms, plus a powder room on the main level. Square footage is listed at 1,629. There is a basement, but it’s not finished. A big plus in this neighborhood is the 2 car garage! And the yard is larger than average, so despite the garage there’s still a nice yard. They have put many lovely details into this home and the neighbors are great! If you know of anyone looking to live less than a mile from the west end of campus, send them over!


Genealogy is like crack

Major news: the 1940 US Census will become available this year in April to genealogical researchers and the general public. It’s the event of the decade, so to speak. Each census is released 72 years after it was taken. People are scrambling to get everything online and make it available to rabid consumers of family history data. Like me.

I first became aware of genealogy, although I had trouble learning to spell it, in a college library when I happened to come across a book in which I looked up my last name and found out that living in the western part of the country was a whole extended family of Hogles who had become professionals, made a lot of money, and had a zoo named after them in Utah! I was amazed and wondered if somehow we were related. I doubted it since that family was in the west and mine I knew had originated in upstate New York.

During a visit with my family when I was in my early 20s, I asked our dad to tell me about all the family members he could recall and how they were related to each other. Growing up, we had been told to call everyone older than us Uncle and Aunt, despite the fact that only two of them were technically an aunt and an uncle. So, I didn’t fully understand how everyone was related. He remembered an amazing amount of detail; I drew up a genealogy chart and tucked it away. I still have it, and most of it has turned out to be accurate.

So, what is it about genealogy that is so addicting? Maybe there’s some inner drive that makes some people so curious about the past and about networks between people. It might have something to do with a love of history, anthropology, and photography. Our parents kept scrapbooks, old newspapers describing famous events, and hundreds of photographs carefully kept in albums. Our dad took all the pictures. And our mother made notes on the back of who, when and where. The why part was missing usually. But most of the photos are identified.

Eventually, I ended up with all the old photos from our parents. My brother Don and I began preserving them in better-quality albums. My curiosity about these relatives persisted. I wanted to know where we came from originally. In the late 1990s, I began to explore connections on the internet. While our mother was still alive, I was able to find out for her what had happened to her father, when he died and where he was buried. I found out the names of his parents and where they were from. I found out about my grandmother’s birth family, that she was the oops baby, the youngest of five, and that her own grandmother had died giving birth to her only child, my great-grandmother.  I found out where my mother’s mother was buried. I visited several cemeteries and photographed stones. And I also found out the name of one of my great-grandfathers, Asahel Hogle, who lived his entire life in Canada. I then found out that the Hogle family was actually of Dutch origin, not English as our dad had thought. The Hogles came to New York State from Holland, possibly in the early 1700s or late 1600s. Another Hogle from Arkansas published a book about Hogles in June 2001 and I immediately obtained a copy. Our Hogle line began with Johannes Hoghil in 1715, who was killed by Indians in his 30s. He had a son, John, who died at the Battle of Bennington, fighting on the side of the Loyalists. Years later, his widow and sons left for Canada where the family remained for a century. Asahel’s son came back to New York in the 1800s and settled in Syracuse. Meanwhile, my mother’s Irish Canadian ancestors ended up in Vermont, a short hop across the border from their original home in Montreal. Her French ancestors appear to have lived near Troy, NY, for a long time, but I’ve not been able to trace them very far. Don and I did a Dead Ancestors Tour of upstate New York a few years ago, staying in B&B’s, visiting with town historians, spending a day at the NYS Archives in Albany, and photographing more stones.

I did learn to spell “genealogy.” It’s such an odd word, not spelled like other “ologies.” I’ve taken several great genealogy classes at the Wisconsin Historical Society, one of the most amazing organizations of its kind in America. I’m not making that up. They have incredible resources and dispense assistance from a beautiful old building on the UW campus. It’s a great place to do research, even if your ancestors are not from Wisconsin!

The turning point in the genealogy addiction occurred last month when I read about the release of the 1940 census data and signed up for a subscription to – they were offering a reduced rate in honor of the census release. As I began to explore the site, I was impressed at how much it had improved in ten years since I first used it. Then I began to think about getting Family Tree Maker, a reasonably priced product that links with online family trees being created by thousands of other genealogy nut-cases like me. So, I looked into it and noticed it could upload PAF files. I had used PAF some years back to start creating a family tree, but I liked the idea of being able to backup my files online and take advantage of the research efforts of others in adding to my own tree.

Last weekend, we successfully imported all 600+ people in my family tree into Family Tree Maker. As I began doing the tutorials, I was truly astounded at how sophisticated this program is! After working in it, then you can sync the data with your online tree! And then you can look at your tree from anywhere that you have an internet connection. What happened Saturday night is that for six straight hours after uploading my data and opening up and Family Tree Maker, I sat in front of my computer oblivious to anything happening around me. Luckily there are no children at home or dogs to be walked. Perhaps I stopped to eat dinner.

When I look at my family tree, small leaves appear at the end of many names, waving gently and calling to me to click. That is the indication that has found some additional data elsewhere in other people’s trees that might be relevant to my ancestor. So, I click, quickly review the new data, and decide if I want to add it to my ancestor’s file. When I add new people, all of a sudden I then see additional small green leaves waving tantalizingly in a cyber breeze, beckoning my cursor to pet the leaf and see what’s hiding there! God, I can’t stop!! As of last night, I had added over 100 additional people to my tree, and wandered back to Belgium in the late 1500’s! How amazing and wonderful and exciting!!

My father’s line is originally Dutch, and my maternal line is French. But my Catholic Dutch grandfather (who probably didn’t know anything at all about his Dutch ancestry) married a Scotch Baptist and they spent the rest of their lives attending an Episcopal church. My mother’s mother, French Catholic, married into an Irish Catholic family who descends from Donegal, Ireland, via Montreal. But way back in the tangled lines of intermarriage, I found German, Belgian, and English ancestors, too. The whole of Europe runs in my DNA. Now I have a serious genealogy addiction fueled by the internet, and Family Tree Maker. And I need to go to Montreal, and back to Syracuse and Binghamton, and there are more graves to visit…. And the 1940 census will be available in just a few weeks!

The winter that wasn’t

Perhaps the reason I’ve been so out of sorts since early January is that we did not get winter here in Madison this year. We’ve had very little snow, many threats that did not materialize, and much warmer than normal temperatures. Last night, a couple inches of wet fluffy stuff came down, and the world look cleanly white this morning with everything frosted, but it will all melt this weekend when the temps hit 40 or more. I feel cheated of a season I love. We did not even get one blazing blizzard this year! Climate change is really annoying. Since our downsizing move to be closer to jobs this past year, I can now walk to work on campus. Rarely have I needed boots with ice-grippers on the bottom this season. Usually each year we have several days of nasty minus-something temps with wind, but this year, we only dipped into the single digits a couple times and I don’t think it was minus anything any time. Very disappointing. No skiing, no skating… it’s just not fair to live in Wisconsin and be deprived of winter.

Don’t tell anyone! Our winters here are much better than anywhere else in the midwest most years anyway, but we don’t want the rest of the country to be too aware of that fact. Slow change and growth is fine but floods of new arrivals in large numbers would not be a good idea. We have glorious summers here, but again, let’s just keep that a local secret. The folks cooking in Arizona summers can just head due north; don’t come this way! And you Texans…. just head west to NM mountains — higher altitudes, lower temps. We’re fine here in Wisconsin with our 5.7 million people. Let the growth continue…. slowly. 

All the jobs I’ve ever had

It’s April… many people are graduating from college in May (including our daughter). Some of them already have jobs lined up (not our daughter). There is much anxiety out there about working. I wonder how many people are reading Penelope Trunk as they panic about post-graduation possibilities. Back when I was at the beginning of the golden years of rock ‘n roll, I didn’t think so much about careers but mostly about how to find a job to make enough money to 1) have some spending money, and 2) stay in college. I was not really picky about work because when you grow up at the edge of financial calamity, you never feel entitled to a high-paying job when you know you have very few skills.  At the beginning of your working life, your job skills (when you graduate with a non-practical degree) are limited to showing up on time, appropriately dressed, behaving cheerfully, finding out what exactly they want you to do, doing it in the best way possible, and planning your next move. No one found me a job when I was young. I had no mentors, didn’t have a clue what I could do, but somehow ended up eventually getting more degrees, and actually doing things I wanted to do all along but just didn’t know exactly what they were at the time. I’ve had a varied “career” but the beginnings of it all were nothing exciting.  

So, I began to think about all the jobs I’ve done in the past and I decided to try to list them all. And I realized that no matter what job I did, there was something good about it, I learned something from the experience, and I can do almost anything for a year or two. In what may be the twilight of my working life, I can look back on half a century of jobs and see that I have done the usual things and then some not so usual:

  1.  Babysitting was my first official “job” for which I was paid money, which likely started out in the 1960s at about 50 cents an hour. I babysat from the age of 12 until about half-way through college when I had better things to do with my time and other ways to make money. I even spent an entire summer once as a nanny.  Best thing about the job: figuring out that child care was not something I wanted to do for pay over the long-term. What I learned: managing kids is really hard.
  2. Bud’s Chicken Take-out, Lake Worth, FL – my first “real” job, meaning a place where you go to work, in this case, after school and during the summers for a couple of years. In 1967, it was a very small place with no eat-in, only take-out, and not air-conditioned because Bud was afraid it would change the taste of the chicken. (?) Think about South Florida in the summer. Us girls wore cute smocks over our white blouses and sweated rivers standing in front of heat lamps that kept the fried chicken warm while we filled customers’ orders. Best thing about the job: free fried chicken after work. What I learned: food service and I are not a good fit.
  3. Department store clerk:  South Florida, 1960s/1970s. Working retail over holidays and summers was a fill-in thing for many young people in those years. Seemed like everyone spent some time in department stores. Best thing about the job: seeing what’s on sale before getting off work. What I learned: how to work a cash register.
  4. Bookkeeping assistant: for Montgomery Ward’s in West Palm Beach, Florida, the summer after my freshman year. I was the only person in the office with any college education. The boss asked me to quit school and work there full-time! I did not. Best thing about the job: the paycheck. What I learned: bookkeeping is boring.
  5. Typesetter:  at college in Florida in the early 1970s, I worked for the student newspaper in the evenings in a windowless office full of cigarette smoke. Before the advent of desktop publishing, typesetting of printed material was produced by hand using small sharp tools. I started out as a journalism major so it seemed like a logical job. I changed my major however. Best thing about the job: reading the paper. What I learned: I could write better than a lot of the newspaper writers.
  6. Resident advisor: This was a bonanza job that I did for 3 years in college. It paid well, I had a private room as part of my job, and in those days, it wasn’t a job that seemed like police work. Best thing about the job: it paid for braces to straighten my teeth. What I learned: how to listen and how to ask questions.
  7. Dude ranch laundry worker: After the summer at Monkey Wards, I was determined not to go home to South Florida for any more summers. By Christmas of sophomore year, I had applied to three resorts in different parts of the country. I didn’t care what the work was, I just wanted to be in a beautiful place with less humidity. And I did just that – for 3 summers – Moosehead Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first summer, I sewed curtains, cleaned cabins and waited tables. The next two summers I ran the laundry room. I lived for my summers in Wyoming.  Best things about the job: Grand Teton National Park; riding horses; floating the Snake River. What I learned: how to clean bathrooms & make beds properly, and how to rock climb (on my one day off each week).
  8.  Ward clerk: Eventually, I finished taking classes for a master’s degree in anthropology in the mid-1970s and needed a job in order to pay the rent while I wrote a thesis. The highest paying grunt job in Gainesville, Florida at the time was ward clerking at the university’s teaching hospital. I had an interest in medicine anyway, so did that job for two years while deciding what to do next. It was a clerical job on a pediatric ward, full of very sick children. Thus it was emotionally wrenching. But the experience in a large hospital was invaluable. Best thing about the job:  participant observation in a medical setting – how things work, what people do, how sick people can get.  What I learned: how to hold a kid still while someone does a procedure, and how to keep important information organized. I also figured out that a career in hospital administration did not interest me. Also, that I did not want to go to medical school or to nursing school.
  9. Research assistant: While I was ward clerking on the 4 to midnight shift, I worked for about 6 weeks during the day interviewing caregivers at an institution for people with severe disabilities – it was actually a type of evaluation, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was just the interviewer. It was a place called Sunland Training Center in Florida. Best thing about the job:  getting paid to participate in research. What I learned: how to interview people in order to get good information.
  10. Editorial assistant: Eventually I went back to school for another degree, this time in medical anthropology. While in school, I worked for my advisor who was an editor for a professional journal. I helped with editing the articles before they were published. Best thing about the job: reading articles in my area of interest. What I learned: editing skills (immensely useful).
  11. Ambulance driver and EMT: Fast forward to the early 1980s in southern New Mexico where we happened to be living. I decided to volunteer on the local ambulance service after taking an 81-hour EMT course, taught by the two local National Health Service Corps physicians (one of which was my husband). For one year, I worked part-time driving the ambulance and responding to emergencies. Best thing about the job: adrenaline rush & orange jumpsuits. What I learned: emergency first aid.
  12. Independent consultant: Yes, indeed, quite a catch-all label. Tells you nothing. However, in 1983, we moved to West Africa. Eventually I found work as an “on-the-ground” liaison to international development organizations that needed someone local to help them do their work. Living and working in Niger and Kenya for seven and a half years, learning to function in another culture, learning French — added to my research training — meant I had skills I could contribute to international public health. I always had work which was different, interesting, challenging and paid well. My favorite consultancy was working in Uganda on a project with traditional healers. Best thing about the jobs: flexibility and my income was not taxed because I found the jobs while based overseas. What I learned: working from home is great; French; Kiswahili; rhinos are dangerous; how to be adaptable.
  13. Program evaluator: Now we get to what I really “do”. I was trained as a social scientist in how to do research, but I realized eventually that 1) I did not want to teach anthropology in a university and 2) I didn’t really have “my” research that I was dying to do. Yes, I have done research. Yes, I have published some papers. But I did not care to jump onto the tenure track and anyway, there are not many jobs. In 1991, when we moved back to the US, I was hired as an “evaluation officer” on a federally funded international HIV prevention project, not because I was an evaluator (I was not) or because I had experience in HIV-AIDS prevention (I didn’t), but because I had lived overseas for 7 years, because I spoke French, because I was a social scientist, and mainly because I was easy to get along with! I worked on that project for six years, then consulted part-time for another decade as an evaluator, and then went to work full-time about 2 ½ years ago on an NIH grant as a program evaluator. I live in Wisconsin. And I really like my job! Best thing about the jobs: The work I do is practical, applied and useful because it helps people figure out 1) what they intend to do (goals and objectives), 2) how they’ll know they did it (metrics), and 3) where the information’s coming from (data sources). What I am learning: Evaluation is tricky, needed, and very, very marketable.
  14. Direct sales consultant: I had to add this as a postscript because I am still technically a direct sales consultant with the Creative Memories company – a 23-year-old supplier of scrapbooking and digital image management products. I’ve been a CM consultant for 10 years and created at least 80 scrapbook albums of family photographs and stories. Best thing about the job: getting scrapbooking supplies at consultant cost instead of retail, and meeting so many people who I would never otherwise encounter. What I am learning: running a home-based business is a lot of work and takes time away from scrapbooking.

What I wish I could say: as a post-postscript, I have to say that if my life had been different, I would have liked to say simply that I am a writer or a photographer or a musician. I do all those things, but not professionally, and not for money. “Do what you love” was not advice that I heard 30 or 40 years ago. I did not have the self-confidence to even consider doing something as risky as photography or writing or music. On the other hand, some would say that a social science degree (like anthropology) is plenty risky. But whatever…. Half a century later, I’m working, I like my job, I have good benefits, I’m satisfied. And I learned plenty from all those other jobs.