Memoir writing: Become the hero of your own journey

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Before the advent of written language, the first memoirist drew on cave walls to give the oral tradition permanency, recounting a perilous journey to an unsafe world, personal heroism and a safe return.

Today, the desire to leave a permanent record of one's life is as undeniable as ever. Fortunately, you don't need to spear a mastodon to be the hero of your own journey.

Memoir writing is therapeutic, revelatory, satisfying and communal at many levels. Retirement is a good time to get started. It sure beats boredom. Actor Karl Malden's heroic journey took him from the steel mills of Gary, Ind., to stardom. Titled "Where Do I Start?" his 1997 memoir was written with his daughter, Carla.

"If you ever have an opportunity to work with a daughter or a son on a book, do it," he said in a recent interview. "We laughed a lot and we cried some as we went through this together. I learned how wonderful she is."

You needn't be a famous actor or a writer, a conqueror or a captain of industry. Compelling memoirs are written and published by people from all walks of life. Some are self-published and others by major publishing houses. Some are intended only to be a legacy to one's heirs, and still others are written solely for the writer, perhaps as an act of making peace with oneself and one's choices.

Memoirs can be collections of stories, created to edify, to entertain and to assure one's immortality, if only in someone else's memories. Once on the page, words become truth-tellers.

Whether you cast yourself as a hero who has overcome adversity or as a victim of circumstance, you cannot help but learn that you are the creator of your own life through the small choices you made along the way and continue to make. Reading your words makes it so.

Even though I had a career outside the home, midlife and the empty nest dealt me a double whammy, hitting me big time. Depressed, I began writing short reminiscences, trying to find the hopeful and romantic young woman I'd been.

First, I blamed others for my "failure," and then I castigated myself for my unrealized dreams. Eventually, through reading what was on the page, I stopped being a victim and became the heroine of my own journey.

Once you've made the decision to write a memoir, there are several other decisions to be made: How shall you acquire the skills to tell your story? Where and how can you get started? For whom is this story intended? And, once it is written, what do you do with it? Community centers and colleges frequently offer classes in memoir writing. Or consider starting your own story circle.

You may consider yourself a better talker than a writer, especially if you're not used to keeping a journal (also an excellent place to begin). Meet with a good friend and swap stories. Capture your words with a tape recorder. If you can't type or don't own a personal computer, pay someone to transcribe your stories. Some, who find it difficult to write, tell their stories to a camcorder or to the operator of a laptop computer.

What stories do you want to tell about your childhood? My favorites include ice skating on the school playground each winter; tobogganing on "suicide hill"; the acrid smell of burning leaves; learning to ride a mule named Jack in the Smoky Mountains; and the biweekly arrival of a metal box containing eggs from Aunt Iva's farm during World War II.

Need help? There are plenty of how-to books to guide you through the process. Some are so practical you need only fill in the blanks. If you decide to begin by keeping a journal, there are many fine books on that topic, too. The secret is a blank book that fits in your pocket or purse. My personal favorite is an inexpensive bound sketch book found in art-supply stores. It's 5 inches by 8 inches, has a black cover and costs less than $10. There's a whole shelf of these. The contents are the genesis of two unpublished memoirs, the first about that Illinois childhood and the second about surviving the deaths of my two sisters.

Having shaped some sort of memoir from your recollections and ramblings, what next? That's entirely up to you. You may self-publish your memoir, leave it on the shelf in the closet or seek to sell it to a publisher. Although memoirs are quite popular currently, and one occasionally reads of grandmothers with million-dollar contracts, the reality is that finding an agent and a publisher is an arduous task. Most publishers do not look at material that didn't come via an agent, and there are plenty of charlatans out there to separate you from your bucks.

Here are some resources:

*"How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer" by Lois Daniel (Chicago Review Press,1997).

*"Your Life as Story," "Discovering the New Autobiography" and "Writing Memoir as Literature" by Tristine Rainer (Putnam, 1998).

*"Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art" by Judith Barrington (Eighth Mountain Press, 1996).

*"Writing Your Life: Putting Your Past on Paper" by Lou Willett Stranek (Avon Books, 1996).

*"Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories" by Denis Ledoux (Soleil Press, 1993, also audiocassette, 1997).

*"Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story" by Susan Wittig Albert (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Book, 1996).