In her January 19th blog post, "Why I'll Never Write Your Lifestory," author Diane Chamberlain states, “Your life story, while it may be fascinating, may not make for good reading. A good, readable story requires a structure and focus, and most life stories don’t fall neatly into readable form.”
The same day I read an item in the Denver Post about school children who are interviewing grandparents and writing about their family history. The article tells how Colorado writers Irv Green and Andrea Gross collected over thirty stories from young writers and published them in a book, Relatively Speaking. The article also notes that grandchildren are more apt to be interested in written legacies than the author’s children.
These two items are in interesting juxtaposition. On the surface they may sound a bit contradictory, but a closer look shows otherwise. It may be true that an ordinary life may not fall into a neat and compelling structure, and may seem a bit unfocused. To the general public, that life may not make compelling reading, but to a descendant two or three generations later, it can be fascinating. Even small scraps of that life can be fascinating.
In fact, Diane goes on to say that herself: “Even if your story doesn’t turn out to be publishable, it will be invaluable for the generations that follow you. I would give my new 21″ flat screen monitor to have just a few autobiographical pages from my grandparents.” (My 19″ flat screen is safe. I do have several pages from or about three of my four grandparents and my mother, and I treasure every word.)
Don’t be deterred from writing, even if you thing your life has been of the “plain vanilla” sort, and don’t be deterred if your children seem currently indifferent. Think longer range.
But I had a further thought. Diane seems to be speaking of chronological overview accounts of life — the sort of story a novelist would write. If you look across an expanse of meadow, you primarily see an even green field. But drop to your knees with a magnifying glass, and look closely. You’ll see blades of grass growing in different directions and an infinite variety of shades of green. Some grass is glossy and other types are a bit rough and “fuzzy.” You may see clover, a few dandelions, some oxalis, or plantains. You may see buzzing bees, gnats, ants or lady bugs. Smell the scent of loam, or the cow pies nearby. Feel the sunshine on your shoulders and the coolness of the damp earth. Up close, that meadow is a busy, fascinating place.
Take a lesson from that meadow. If your life is a level playing field, zoom in tightly on specific interesting incidents. Write short stories and essays about the details and your thoughts on life. Describe your surroundings, and the doings of everyday routine. That will be structured, focused and eminently readable. Your grandchildren will love you for it.
Write now: look closely at items in your house, like a picture on the wall, or the contents of the silverware drawer in your kitchen. Look at them from six inches away. Write for ten minutes about details of what you see, as if you’ve never seen them before, and include things like the scattering of brown and white crumbs in the bottom of the divider tray. What color is the tray? What design is on the silverware. What do the items remind you of? What memories do they bring back? At the end of the ten minutes, play with adjectives. Expand color words with metaphors (red as sunset on a smoggy day), and replace mundane adjectives like “small” with “the size of a matchbook.” Try to avoid using the same adjective twice.