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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 4, 2019

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

How to Write Your Life Story

If you start out to write a complete autobiography, you will probably begin far before the beginning - with your parents or grandparents, stories you were not personally present to witness. This is a dreadful mistake because you will find that to have anything accurate to say at all will require research, and that will be enough cause to discourage you from doing anything at all. Instead, you will say, "I'll work on that when I have time," and nothing will be written.

But who is it you are writing FOR? Your family, your children, perhaps friends, and, with any luck, grandchildren and great grandchildren, who will be living in a different time, and who may not have known you when they were old enough to build any memory of you.

Besides, those grandchildren will only know you as an old coot, not as the person who did all the interesting things in your life. And believe me, your life is FULL of things that will interest them -- particularly when they reach adulthood themselves and can read your memoir with real understanding.

So never attempt to "write your life story." Instead, write "stuff you remember about moments in your life." Give yourself a reasonably limited subject, and name it according to a category.

For instance, I might write about "Mrs. Yee, second-grade teacher," and then name the computer file: Teachers-Yee 3rd grade." And, on that subject, I would only remember that she was not an immigrant -- my guess now is third or fourth-generation American -- but I never thought about that at the time because in Santa Clara California in 1959, there were so many people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry that to me it looked like just one more way to be American.

And then I would write about the day in mid-year when Mrs. Yee announced this was her last day teaching, and she liked teaching us, she would miss us, and goodbye. I raised my hand and asked the obvious question: "Why are you leaving?"

The other kids -- well, the girls, at least -- hooted at me with open scorn. "Look at her," one of them said, which struck me as stupid because I WAS looking at her. Finally, taking mercy on me, one of the others said, "She's going to have a baby."

Only then did I realize that yes, it did look as if she were hiding a mid-sized ball under her loose dress. Pregnant. Who knew? Everybody else. But the change in her body had been so gradual that I, in my third-grade obliviousness, never even noticed.

And there. That's my whole memory of Mrs. Yee. My two previous teachers, Miss Cummings and Miss Crawford, had been ineligible (in those days) for pregnancy, and it simply never occurred to me that teachers could be married and have babies.

Think of each writing section as a separate memory, and don't worry about fact-checking -- that can be done later, if it matters. What's wanted is YOUR story, how your life seems to you, and it doesn't matter if it is told in order. It took me about three minutes to write this loose account of Mrs. Yee, and it was complete in four or five paragraphs.

Not only that, but you can't write it incorrectly. You are jotting down memories, not constructing a literary masterpiece. This is not David Copperfield you're writing, this is notes about stuff you remember. Write it as if you were telling the tale to a fascinated grandchild, perhaps one you have not yet met. Just write the way you speak. Do not worry about spelling or grammar -- in fact, part of the purpose is for your descendants and kinfolk to hear your voice, to get to know you. Let them have your language as you speak it, as you write it. If you're a bad speller, there's no reason to conceal that from them. They aren't going to grade you. This isn't a job application. It's a conversation.

So I wrote about Mrs. Yee. Next I might write about tetherball -- playing it on the asphalted-in poles on the playground at Millikin Elementary, when I finally got old enough that there weren't any bigger kids to push us younger ones away. And how, when I had a nice house in Greensboro NC where I intended to live for a long time, I installed a tetherball pole in my backyard. I discovered that there was no way for me to play tetherball with my kids because in that game, size matter. And the kids weren't all that thrilled with it, either. So the ball sat on the end of the rope in sun and rain and snow until it got brittle. I replaced it and the same thing happened. The pole is gone now, replaced by a structure that holds a set of big, deep-sounding windchimes. That paragraph is my whole life with tetherball.

But as I wrote it, I remembered the obsession my friends and I had with the game of four-square, played on a striped-out diagram on the playground. We formed a ridiculous four-square club but we got pretty good at the game. More-athletic kids were out playing softball or doing other athletic things, but we brainy kids owned one four-square diagram every recess, and played with (or so we supposed) panache. Never played a game after I left Millikin Elementary in seventh grade. But I still think of myself as a highly skilled four-square player. We take pride in whatever we can ...

My tetherball paragraph would be in a file called "Sports-ElementarySchool." The four-square stuff would be in that same file, after skipping a blank line to show I was changing subjects. Nobody's going to write "poorly organized" in the margin. If someone reads it at all, they'll follow along just as in a natural conversation.

That is how you write your life story -- in small, digestible bits. You don't have to show it to anybody. Maybe at the end of every year you print it out, make copies, bind it with a cheap plastic binding, and send copies to your family at New Year's -- not at Christmas. It's not a Christmas present, it's a New Year's taking-stock-of-my-life kind of gift. And whether they read the whole output of that year or not, it will give them the idea: This is how personal history is done. Informal. Organized only according to what pops into your mind. Nothing ever long enough to get boring.

A couple of years before my dad died, he came out from Utah and visited with me and my wife in North Carolina. There were some good memories of things we did, including my pushing him around the state zoo in Asheboro in a wheelchair, which might have killed me but didn't; but the treasure of that visit was that we sat together in the family room, turned off the TV, and my dad spent two hours telling me about his participation in World War II and its aftermath. He was a Navy photographer most of the time, following up on his obsessive high school hobby, but there were lots of good stories about commanding officers, friends, and adventure in San Diego and on Guam. I am still furious with myself for not turning on a recording device, but I didn't want to get up and go get one; the conversation had not been planned, it just growed. But I could write down, in a file called "DadInWorldWarII," whatever I remembered from that conversation; and, later, when I remembered other stuff, I could simply add it in.

So you sit down and you want to write YOUR memories. Don't wait to think of something deep and meaningful. You can pick some kind of external trigger. For instance, sometimes you might write about one of these topics:

A school you attended.

A house where you lived growing up.

An apartment or house where you lived as an adult or as a student.

You and your bicycle.

A particular car that you used to drive.

Injuries you suffered -- telling about just one at a time. The limb you broke. The fall from the tree. Why you're glad your parents made you wear a bike helmet.

A sibling. If you're candid and there is unpleasant stuff, you will NOT share this with the whole family -- let them discover it after you're dead.

A particular pet -- everything you can think of about its life intertwined with yours.

Books you read as a kid. As an adult. In school. Books given to you by somebody who mattered to you.

Movies you saw and loved or hated or had nightmares about.

Kids you had a crush on in school. People you dated. People you're so glad you didn't marry.

A family trip. An outing with a parent. Your first airplane flight. Your first trip without a parent along.

The time you decided you couldn't stand to live with your parents another minute and you ran away -- at age four, or age nine, or age sixteen.

Now, if you're choosing a regular time to sit down and write memories for a few minutes, you'll find that at the end of a year you have an awful lot of stuff that will give an amazingly full picture of your life, especially because you will take care to include:

1. The attitude toward these events that you had AT THE TIME.

2. The attitude toward these events that you have NOW.

It's the attitude and the meanings you assign, the lessons you learn, the regrets you have, that will bring your character to life -- to yourself while writing, and to your family who will eventually read it.

Now, remember another thing: It is the meaningless, obvious details that people will find MOST interesting fifty years from now. For instance: Talk about the prices of things when you were a kid. I could talk about getting a $2 a month allowance and spend the whole thing to buy one Revell model house for my HO train layout, or to buy one box of Airfix plastic HO scale soldiers to play war games with my little brother.

I could talk about going with my mom to do grocery shopping for the week in about 1960, and how we'd have six full paper bags (no handles) to carry to the car, and my mom is complaining because she had to spend nearly twenty dollars for the whole shopping trip.

Prices! Cars the family drove, and what it was like to ride in that 1956 Buick with the sticky-hot fabric that was so itchy on your bare legs when you rode home from the beach in your swimsuit. What you did when you went to the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz, or when you went to Knotts Berry Farm, or your first trip to an east-coast beach after years of visiting only the California beaches. (What, WARM water in the ocean?)

The fact that girls were required to wear bathing caps in the public swimming pool -- the Mariposa pool in Santa Clara County.

The fact that you could ride your bike EVERYWHERE, no helmet, and without an adult following in a car -- when you were eight years old.

Television shows you watched. Movies that you and all your friends talked about.

You'll be recreating a world, or placing yourself in history your family might have heard of. For my age group, there was the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan (we couldn't watch; my parents had a rule against TV on Sunday); the day Kennedy was shot (no therapists came to "comfort" us -- we just gossiped to each other, and then watch Lee Harvey Oswald get murdered by Jack Ruby on live TV). Vonda Kay Van Dyke as the first and, perhaps, only Miss America whose talent was ventriloquism -- and she was from Arizona (where I lived at the time).

You ARE a time capsule. Include prices, include traffic rules, include new freeways and buildings that are gone now. Where did you go out to eat? When did a particular fastfood franchise come to your town? What was breakfast like at your house? Did you have food wars? (If you don't eat your mush at breakfast, it will be served to you tonight at dinner.) What was your favorite cold cereal as a kid (but we called it "breakfast food," not cold cereal)? What did your siblings or family do with food that disgusted you? (Maple syrup on scrambled eggs? Catsup on scrambled eggs? Chocolate cake with chocolate icing in a bowl of milk? I'm still gagging a little, but I feel like I was the only one who found these things pukative.)

Everything is grist for this mill. Often the things that are dullest to you will be most fascinating to your family two or three generations from now.

And best of all, there may be some graduate student working on a dissertation someday -- folkways of Middle Class America in the 1960s, for instance -- who will regard your collection of memories as a gold mine. Because, of course, from time to time you'll donate a copy of your memoir to a university library as an archive of your era. If the librarian or curator knows ANYTHING about their job, they'll regard it as a book of gold. And if they don't, it's no skin off your nose -- you're not writing it to become rich or famous, you're writing it as a love letter to family members you haven't met, and may never meet in this lifetime.

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