Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone is a writer. Some are written in the books, and some are confined to hearts. – Savi Sharma
Each person’s lifetime exists in a compilation of stories. Some are joyful. Some are tragic. Others are filled with humor while still others are cast in tears. People may share stories freely at the same time they hide some in secrets. As author Savi Sharma says, “Some [of these stories] are written in the books, and some are confined to hearts.”
Over the years, many friends and family members have honored me with the telling of their stories. After hearing these accounts, I have often suggested they put these stories into written form. But, a common, first response — given with a head shake and a chuckle – is “Why would I want to do that?” Their expression then changes to the more serious as they ask, “How would I even begin?”
In answer to the question of “why” would I want to write my stories, ghostwriter Robin Storey offers “11 Powerful Reasons To Write Your Life Story” in her blog found at https://www.storey-lines.com/2020/04/20/11-powerful-reasons-to-write-your-life-story/. Her first ten reasons are:
1. Leave A Legacy For Your Family
2. Become A Part Of History
3. Understand Yourself Better
4. It Is Therapuetic To Write Your Life Story
5. Feel More Connected
6. It Gives You A Sense Of Purpose
7. It’s Good For Your Health
8. You’ll Make New Friends
9. It’s Fun And Exciting To Write Your Life Story
10. Discover Your Creativity
Finally, Storey suggests an 11th reason for those who do not feel inclined to tackle the writing themselves.
11. It Can Be Done By Someone Else.
As you can see, there are many reasons to reduce “your stories” to writing. Yet, even knowing these reasons, you may feel overwhelmed with the “how” of starting such a project. Like my friends and family, you may ask, “How would I even begin?”
You may choose to “start at the beginning” with a chronological retelling of your life in a traditional autobiographical format. Another option is to focus on a particularly important stage in your life, such as getting your first job or becoming a parent. You may write around a particular theme that could refer to anything as favorite movies or challenges of faith. There are no right or wrong ways to proceed. But, if you are still in doubt, I suggest you begin with a holiday memory.
Today is Christmas, and memories of past holidays are on my mind. Think of the holidays you have celebrated, or wished to celebrate –Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. Perhaps, you have a particularly vivid memory of events in your life that revolve around one of those celebrations. You may have a joyous remembrance of your family attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve or opening a gift each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. In contrast, your holidays may have been filled with anguish when a loved one’s health failed shortly before Thanksgiving or when you were alone on New Year’s Eve after a painful divorce.
Before you take the leap to writing a story from your own remembrances, you may wish to read, or reread, some holiday works that are based on the author’s autobiographical experiences. An author’s personal holiday memories have been the focus of both memoir and fiction. Dylan Thomas based his A Child’s Christmas in Wales on his own childhood holiday experiences, as did Truman Capote in A Christmas Memory. But, writers’ personal recollections may also enhance their fiction as Jean Shepherd’s wonderfully humorous A Christmas Story exemplifies.
If you still feel unsure about beginning to write about a holiday experience, I suggest you check out some of the many websites and blogs devoted to help develop related skills. The website of the National Association of Memoir Writers includes information about “Writing Your Holiday Memories” and suggests the following prompts might help a person begin putting holiday memories into writing:
“1. Describe your childhood home during the holidays—how was it decorated? What did your neighborhood and town or city look during the holidays?
2. During the holidays did you connect with extended family or were the holidays quiet?
3. What is one of your favorite photographs from a holiday? Describe it and write about why it is your favorite.
4. Write about your favorite holiday food, recipe, or story that you associate with holiday food rituals—cookie baking, special cakes, or any ritual food that has meaning to you. Use sensual details—color, sound, smell, and taste.
5. What was your most wished for holiday present? Did you receive it or not? How did the gift you got or didn’t get affect your feelings about the holidays?
6. Write about Christmas holidays through the decades and how they changed.
7. What rituals do you bring from past holidays into your celebrations now? If you created new ones, write about why you chose these new rituals”
Check out the article and more about the organization at https://www.namw.org/2014/12/writing-your-holiday-memories/.
I found more good advice on the subject in the Psychology Today website at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-and-gratitude/201412/4-memoir-writing-tips-treasuring-holiday-memory. In that article (“4 Memoir Writing Tips for Treasuring a Holiday Memory”), Rita Watson explains that starting with a theme, using a journal, note book, or computer, looking at photos, and simply writing down thoughts you wish to treasure are matters to remember when starting to write about a holiday memory.
Another suggestion I have found to be most helpful to my own writing is to join a writers’ group. These entities are organized in several different ways. Some are limited to members of a particular national or local association while others are open to only published writers. But, many groups have an informal structure and are open to anyone interested in writing – published or not, beginner or experienced. The writers’ group I belong to is organized through one of my community’s many special interest groups.
Over a period of a year, I read excerpts of my novel Sarah Finn to my group and received (much appreciated!) “gentle criticism” which assisted in improving my work. Although my book is fiction, I did base some of its passages on my own experiences, especially regarding the portion of Sarah Finn that regards Christmas traditions of my fictional Henderson family.
The following excerpt includes young Cathryn Henderson’s describing her family’s placement of their nativity scene during the Christmas of 1963 and is founded in my own memories and family traditions.
“Now Momma must have stayed up late last night after getting Grandfather Tanner to bed so she could finish the nativity scene under the tree. Every year Daddy brought home extra paper bags from his factory, and Momma soaked them in water to make what she called papier-mâché. Then she’d wad up old newspapers and put them under the tree and cover everything in the wet sheets of brown paper. She’d work and work. And, when the whole thing dried, it looked like our Christmas tree was standing in the middle of a mountain. Then she’d sprinkle fake snow over the paper mountain and place our nativity figures on the little valleys created by the papier-mâché.
So that morning after church, I saw Grandfather Tanner had put three wise men, two angels, some sheep and a shepherd boy, a manger, and Mary and Joseph under the tree. But, it was always my brother’s role to put the baby Jesus in the manager, so the little hay crib was empty.
It was William’s turn to carry out his tradition. He liked to make a big scene out of his part, and this year was no different. He waited till everyone put up their coats and then gathered around him. ‘I woke up in the middle of the night to check on baby Jesus. Even though that shoe box he and the other nativity people were staying in was saved from the tornado, I got scared maybe he still got broken in all that wind and stuff.‘
Then William held the baby Jesus above his head and turned to show it to everyone. ‘But, he’s just fine.’
‘Be careful, son,’ Momma said. ‘He might not be so fine if you aren’t more careful with how you’re holding him.‘
William brought the little figure from over his head and held it gently in his hands. ‘I wouldn’t let anything happen to him. That’s why I let him sleep in my room all last night.‘
Sarah Finn patted William on the shoulder. ‘Why that was very thoughtful of you. I’m sure the Lord in Heaven smiled to see how you took care of His son.‘
I didn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss about my brother keeping a little toy Jesus in his room. I guess Momma could tell I was getting antsy with William’s hogging everyone’s attention because she put her arms around me and said, ‘I think it’s time baby Jesus was put in his manager. Don’t you, William?‘
‘Yes, Momma, it’s that time,’ William said as he started the part of his tradition I really, really hated. My brother began to sing ‘Away in the Manger.’ He ended the Christmas carol with a way-too-loud ‘Happy birthday, Jesus.‘
And, just before he put the baby Jesus in the manger, he gave him a little kiss.“From Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor
When writing this part of my novel, I went back to remember my own mother and her work creating the papier-mâché mountain under our Christmas tree. Having the youngest sibling place Jesus in the manger of the family’s nativity scene was a tradition carried on by my son, the younger of my two children. I’m sure you have past holiday experiences and traditions just as vivid as these memories of mine. I hope you will not simply keep these stories “confined” to your heart, to use Savi Sharma’s phrase. Instead, I encourage you to share your memories and record them in written form – whether in a memoir or in a piece of fiction. After all, you are your own best “teller” of your lifetime of stories.
by PortiaLily Taylor
Photo by Friar Sergio Serrano, OP on Pexels.com