Wisdom evolves as you live your memoir

By Jerry Waxler

To research the memoir she is writing, QuoinMonkey visited her childhood home. At first the lush vegetation crowding the house looked like the work of a zealous gardener. Then she realized the house was vacant and surrounded by weeds. To get her arms around this disturbing sight, she posted on her blog a photo and a haiku named “You Can’t Go Back“. Another blogger, ybonesy, commented that the weeds were trying to consume the house. I tried to lighten the mood with physics, pointing out that seeing your childhood home is a sort of time travel, like when you watch a star and realize you’re seeing the light it emitted a million years ago. I appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm the passage of time: the haiku, the photo, time travel, and return to the earth. Yet I was still unsettled, wishing I knew the appropriate response to seeing a childhood home turning decrepit.

Later I was listening to the audio memoir, The Path by Donald Walters, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young seeker he tried to penetrate the secrets of the universe by reading the Bible, but he was upset by the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden Eden for eating the fruit of wisdom. Walters complained, “What sort of God would want us to remain in ignorance?” As I pondered this question, an insight leapt into my mind and for the first time the story of Adam and Eve made more sense to me than it ever had.

When I was young, all I saw in this story was the deception of the snake, and the disobedience against a direct command. I cried, “No. No. Not the apple! You have it all. Stick with the pleasure.” Now, I realize how much depth there is in the story. They were young, naked, and sexy, but physical pleasure wasn’t enough. Their temptation was for knowledge. Instead of being ignorant and self-involved, as I had first supposed, I now see them as courageous. They chose wisdom. In exchange, they must grow old. Now, as I grow older, I’m seeing for myself the terrible price of that bargain. I lose everything, including eventually my own life. In exchange, I want to enjoy every bit of the wisdom that is owed me.

A few days after I had this insight, I was teaching a memoir class, and one of my students wanted to write about his spiritual unfolding. A number of events over the years had convinced him that there was more going on in the universe than he could see on the surface. He glimpsed this transcendent aspect of life through visionary experiences, unexplainable “coincidences,” and inspirational insight. He wanted to write about what he had observed. It would be a sort of work of art to express the way the universe had made itself known to him through his life.

In my opinion, the journey towards spirituality is a wonderful topic for a memoir. I recently read two such memoirs, one by Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, and the other by Martha Beck, Expecting Adam. Both books rely on a fundamental storytelling technique, called the “character arc” which stimulates the reader’s curiosity to see how the protagonist grows. To create this sense of development in your own memoir, look for your evolving wisdom. Even in a collection of essays, show how you started skeptical and self-involved, and then gradually understood more, until finally you understand a lot.

Over the decades our childhood home grows old. Even our body becomes less fun. Yes, I know all the hype, and believe me I’m hanging on to my body for dear life, but the progression is pretty obvious to me already, and I’m only sixty. So if the body is aging, becoming less enchanting, less thrilling, finally less sexy, why should anyone want to keep turning pages to the end of the story? To find the closure to this tale, the redemption, the reason you or anyone would want to get to the end, I suggest we go back to the beginning and look at the bargain God made with Adam and Eve. Unfolding wisdom is the reward. Look for that wisdom and share it with your reader. The evolution of the central character will make a good story to read, and incidentally will also make a good story to live.

Writing prompt: What stories illustrate the evolution of your wisdom? What incidents in your life exposed a guiding hand, a compassionate presence, a coincidence that “couldn’t have happened.”

Memoir reclaims fading memories

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve been misplacing my car keys for years, but lately I’ve been noticing a more disturbing problem. I keep forgetting where I put my life. I have to think before I remember where a past event fits into the scheme of time. And I’m not alone. Most people older than, say, 50 have to struggle to remember all their vacations, jobs, homes, kids, hobbies, illnesses, friendships. After decades there is just too much information to keep straight. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Who cares if I forget when I started singing in a choir, or how many times I saw Close Encounters, or if I can only remember glimpses of the summer I spent in Europe during college? Perhaps I ought to just accept a disappearing past. But I think it’s a worse problem than it first appears. So much of who I am is built from the story of how I got here, and losing the story makes me feel like I’m losing me.

I don’t remember when I first noticed my memory was getting tangled, but I do remember being surprised by it. I didn’t see it coming. I never heard my parents or grandparents complain about feeling confused by too many memories. I’ve never seen it pointed out on television, movies, or the hundreds of self-help books I’ve read. It’s an invisible problem, or at least it was until I noticed. Now, I see how hard it is for anyone over 50 to maintain an organized understanding of their journey. The more I think about the problem, the more it makes sense. The past fades because we let it. When I was young, I didn’t ask my parents about the old days. Since they never talked about their past, they forgot it. And the cycle continues. As I grow older, no one asks me about my past, and now I’m forgetting, too.

It looks like post-modern philosophers like Jacques Derrida are right, that our identity is becoming lost in modern times. But unlike other ills, I believe we can fix this one without waiting for a social upheaval or the discovery of some new medication. We can reclaim our lives by writing about them. Writing lets us revitalize our sense of who we are and how we got here. However, few of us have been trained to write our story, and so we may not believe we can take advantage of the benefits of life story writing. But once you get started, you’ll find it’s really not that hard. As soon as you look, you’ll discover memories, piles of them, like the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle spilled out in a heap. For most of our lives, we’ve picked up a piece of the puzzle, noticed where it fits, and then tossed it back in the pile! Of course we’re confused.

The key is to snap them into place, and you can do that very simply by writing them along a timeline. Writing anything helps you remember it. This is true with phone numbers and to-do lists. And it’s true for your life story. It seems so obvious and yet it’s a revelation for most people. When you line up the events in order, the sequence starts taking shape.

That’s just the skeleton. Now add flesh. As you review your list of events, watch for ones that jump out. Check to be sure you are comfortable going deeper. If so, jump in. While you’re in the scene, look around. Touch a wall or a table, describe hair styles, dreams, fears, or anything else that you experience while inside the scene. Write it all down. What do the characters say? Were they sitting or standing? What do you smell? Through this window, you begin to make more sense of what happened. In fact, it’s almost magical. You not only regain the memory. You go deeper, revealing more now than you knew when you first went through it.

Some people fear that if they delve too deeply into their memories they might get pulled back into the past. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. As I learn to tell my own story, I have become more curious about the people around me. Rather than pushing me into the past, my life story yanks me into the present with a renewed passion to learn the longings, the patterns, and the relationships that transform this sequence of events into the never ending drama of life.

Memoir author interview, Carol O’Dell, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

After reading Carol O’Dell’s memoir, Mothering Mother about her experience caregiving for her mother with Alzheimer’s, I contacted her to ask what it was like to write and share her story with others. Here is part one of a two part original interview.

Waxler: What did you have to do to turn your very personal experiences into a book?

O’Dell: Like most newbie writers, I used my own life to teach me how to write. I joined local writers group in Atlanta in 1996 (we still have a reunion once or twice a year and all of them are terrific, active writers). There’s a real art to telling your own stories and making them readable, interesting, and universal. I’ve come a long way from my first attempts. One way I’ve found to tell stories that people find meaningful is to focus on the ones I tell the most. If my friends and family listen, and their faces light up, and I see they have been moved by it, I write that one down. If I can make them cry…well, that’s gravy.

Waxler: When you were writing Mothering Mother, what sort of work did you do to reclaim this story from your memory?

O’Dell: I wrote MOTHERING MOTHER in “real time.” I wrote journal style (but on the computer) every day. I wrote in the style you read in my book—in vignettes with headings. Whatever I was mulling over in my mind became the topic for the day—and if it didn’t fit under that heading, it didn’t belong there. Of course, many entries didn’t make it in. I tried not to show that I was whining every day. I also didn’t revise my journal during this process. I didn’t begin to compile this as a book until one year after she had passed. I knew the editor in me could really muck it up—make it too writerly—not keep it emotionally raw. I wanted to capture the moment so that other caregivers could truly relate to me—as a caregiver—not a writer.

Waxler: When you were ready to write the book, were you worried about getting it wrong?

O’Dell: Because the word memoir means literally, “a memory,” I knew that certain moments had to be recorded as I, or as my mother remembered them. Facts are in some ways, secondary to memoir. It’s a perspective kind of writing. Yes, I would at times go back and check “the facts,” to see just how off or skewed my or my mother’s thinking really was. It’s good to juxtapose the facts against memory to show what people “do” with their past.

Waxler: When did you decide to try to seek a publisher, rather than just writing it for yourself?

O’Dell: I wanted to be published early on, so I submitted and published articles, essays, short stories, excerpts, and poems over the last ten years. In regard to MOTHERING MOTHER, I did not revise the book until my mother had been deceased for one year. I wanted to capture that first year—birthdays, mother’s day, receiving the death certificate, ordering the headstone, reinventing my own life—in order to round out the experience.

I revised it that summer, (my mother died in June) and then had it professionally edited (mostly copy edited, not content edited. By the way, I highly recommend this. It’s a competitive marketplace, and no matter how good you are, you need a professional eye to take a look at it). I also had to create a proposal, which takes several months to do a good one. I began submitting it in January, six months after starting the revision process, and it took almost a year and a half to sell—in part due to my moving, my daughter’s marriage and the time that took, and honestly, the funk you fall into after a couple of rejections hit you in the gut. It sold in April of 2006 and was published in April of 2007.

Waxler: What’s next?

O’Dell: The prequel to MOTHERING MOTHER is SAID CHILD, which is under consideration at my publisher’s right now, and it’s the story behind the story, so to speak. It’s even grittier, edgier, and took a decade to write, hone, and come to terms with.

To buy a copy of this book, click the Amazon link, Mothering Mother

This interview coincides with Carol O’Dell’s Virtual Book Tour. For more information about what a virtual book tour is and how to enter Carol O’Dell’s Virtual Booktour contest, and for more interviews and information about other services Carol offers, visit her website at http:\\www.caroldodell.com.

Click here for the book review I wrote about Mothering Mother.

Memoir author interview Carol O’Dell, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

After reading Carol O’Dell’s memoir, Mothering Mother about her experience caregiving for her mother with Alzheimer’s, I contacted her to ask what it was like to write and share her story with others. Here is part one of a two part original interview.

Waxler: During your original journaling, did the writing help you cope with your situation?

O’Dell: Absolutely! I found insights into my own soul and motives. I found that for the most part, I was a “better” person than I thought I was. My ideals, hopes, intentions were honorable-for the most part. I started to recognize how my experience went across the generations. Since I have three daughters, I started to realize that everything I thought or did to my mother, would one day boomerang. Like the old saying-what goes ‘round, comes ‘round.

Waxler: Even, and especially at the end of my mom’s life, I wrote by the hour. It gave me an excuse to walk out of the room. It allowed me to go into that “observer’s” place. It gave me something proactive to do with my fear, hurt, and sorrow.

O’Dell: Writing, especially personal writing, (but I think all writing’s personal) can be a form of self therapy. I’ve saved thousands of dollars. Instead of, “Physician, heal thyself” is should be “Writer heal thyself!”

Waxler: Many aspiring memoirists fear that writing about their experience might awaken the pain of it. Could you talk about how this worked for you?

O’Dell: Facing my own personal demons was an evolution. I’m sure I inflicted my pain onto others, and at times, my poor writing group was not only “bleeding” with my purple prose, but also from some pretty strong subject matter (I have other “issues” besides good ole’ mom!) All I can say is don’t try to publish this stuff too soon! You, as a person and as a writer, and perhaps your family, have to evolve and incorporate this material into your being. It’s healing, but anyone who knows anything about medicine and surgery will tell you that the healing process can be a messy, nonlinear journey. I think everyone can benefit from writing and examining aspects of their life-but not everyone needs to publish it. In the end, being a healthy, whole person is even more important than being published.

Waxler: Your experience would offer support and encouragement to others in your situation. Do you give talks on this topic?

O’Dell: Do I talk! All the time. I speak at Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Caregiver’s conferences, support groups and online forums. I speak to professional groups because caregiving is beginning to impact the workplace. I speak to writer’s groups and conferences too. I love to communicate.

Waxler: Did you start speaking in public before you started writing, or after?

O’Dell: I’m a preacher’s daughter (my mother was a minister), and I’ve always been “up front,” whether I wanted to or not. I sang as a child, played the piano, testified (I was brought up Pentecostal and we testified a lot!) So I am used to talking in front of people. I started giving writer’s group/conference talks about six years ago. By then, I had published many articles, essays, and short stories and I shared my journey of going from no publications to dozens. I also did open mic nights, booksigning events for anthologies–any way I could get in the practice.

I know it’s not easy for every writer, but I do believe it’s almost necessary to sell books today. You can’t be reclusive or shy. If it’s uncomfortable for you, start small, do open mic nights, join Toastmasters-anything that gives you experience. Also, if you get published in anthologies such as Chicken Soup, you can schedule booksignings. It’s a great ice breaker to get used to the process. And if you’re at writer’s conferences-get in the thick of things-sit with the authors, agents, and editors. Offer to buy them a drink. Small talk. Talk books. It’s not like you don’t have anything in common.

Waxler: How does it feel sharing personal experiences with a live audience?

O’Dell: I LOVE to create a story, a vision that everyone in the room can see, hear, feel. Just as in writing, the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” still applies. Showing the audience a story beats telling them, “you may experience frustration.” How about, “I’d stand at the counter shoving Oreos into my mouth at 6:00 at night. I hadn’t slept in 30 hours, and mother’s yelling at me to come change her night gown.” It’s visual. I implied the exhaustion, frustration, isolation.

There’s no greater feeling than to look into people’s eyes and know that they’ve agreed to suspend belief for a few minutes and go with you on this journey. To see them smile, laugh, cry, nod, forget to breathe, and then that sweet release at the end of a story…I LOVE IT! It’s like getting to “watch” your reader reading your work, which you don’t get to do, so this the next best thing.

To buy a copy of this book, click the Amazon link, Mothering Mother

This interview coincides with Carol O’Dell’s Virtual Book Tour. For more information about what a virtual book tour is and how to enter Carol O’Dell’s Virtual Booktour contest, and for more interviews and information about other services Carol offers, visit her website at http:\\www.caroldodell.com.

Click here for the book review I wrote about Mothering Mother.

Ten reasons you’re not too old to write your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Of all the reasons people give for not writing their memoirs, two I find most amusing are that “I’m too old” and “I’m too young.” If you find yourself squeezed between the wrong ages to write your memoirs, here are some reasons to help you refute the “I’m too old” one. In another blog, I’ll offer reasons why you’re not too young. Ultimately, the best time is right now.

1) If you fear it’s too late to learn how to write, flip this reason upside down. Learning how to write is an excellent reason for writing your memoir. If you start today, by tomorrow you’ll know more.

2) There’s no upper limit. If you can think, you can write. If your fingers don’t work or you can’t see, you can use voice technology. Author Harry Bernstein wrote his memoir, The Invisible Wall when he was 93.

3) Writing about yourself breaks down the walls between people. Readers feel they know you, and open up more quickly, increasing the energy of your social network.

4) No matter what your age, you can gain peace and deeper insights about your life by understanding how events in earlier years affected you later.

5) You might assume younger people are not particularly interested in you because you’re out of step with the times. Flip this reason upside down. The long reach of your memory is potentially the most interesting thing about you. You’ve seen more, and seen it in different contexts. Offering your memories helps younger people gain a better understanding of their own world.

6) You might think no one will read your work because you’re not young and glamorous. But the value we seek from books works on other dimensions than the smoothness of the author’s skin. In fact, your wrinkles might even become a credential, proving you have the years of experience to speak with authority.

7) Writing is good for your brain and will help you stay mentally supple and vigorous.

8) Once you start looking into your memories, you’ll find your accomplishments tucked away in forgotten corners. Remembering them will help you appreciate what you’ve done and who you are.

9) Telling the story gives you a sense that life is a story. This helps you craft a more interesting story of the future.

10) By writing a memoir, you improve your ability to write all sorts of material, notes, letters, essays, articles in newsletters, blogs. You can use your enhanced writing skills to share yourself with others expanding your interaction with the world, and continuing the social graces, pleasures, and gifts of being a human being.

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

by Jerry Waxler

According to caregiver.org 50 million people in North America are informally caring for the elderly while 8.9 million of those caregivers face the added burden of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Carol O’Dell, author of the memoir “Mothering Mother” was one of those people. Not only was her mother no longer able to care for herself. She had literally lost her mind.

There is nothing pretty about the helplessness of aging, but unless our parents and everyone we love die fast and young, at some point we can no longer push aside the recognition that aging happens. One way to prepare for that realization is by learning about the experiences of those who have gone before us. Through such lessons as offered by the memoir “Mothering Mother,” we gradually do the emotional and spiritual work to accept the variety of stages of our lifetime journey.

O’Dell built a room onto her house and invited her mother to live with her family. By becoming her mother’s primary caregiver, O’Dell immersed herself more deeply into caregiving than she anticipated. She had to set herself aside, the way a mother sets herself aside to care for a newborn. But this was no cuddly infant. This was her mother, lost in forgetting so profound, she not only forgot the past. She forgot how to be human. It’s like a horror movie in which some evil force has stolen the person’s true self, leaving behind the shell.

O’Dell didn’t have the choice to send her mother to a care facility. For one thing, she and her husband were concerned that they could not financially afford to get adequate care for her mother. For another thing, O’Dell had promised her mother  she would care for her at home.

There were times the strain was so severe she felt she was losing her own mind. Her experience was consuming, draining, demoralizing, overwhelming, even traumatic. Her memoir gives me a powerful glimpse into her emotionally complex situation. And she does it without overwhelming me. I found myself wanting to know more and actually raced along to see what would happen next.

One of the reasons I wanted to know more about her experience was to try to understand how she coped. If she could cope with this situation then there is hope for humanity. And in fact, she did exactly that. She cared for her aging, failing mother to the best of her ability and in the process earned my respect. Her ordinary life gave her the material to inform millions of people what that experience was like. While O’Dell’s experience seems overwhelming, by sharing it with us, she also shares some of the strength and sanity she gained by immersing herself so deeply into the final throes of her mother’s life.

Writing a memoir is exactly the opposite of the mental deterioration of dementia. By writing a story about taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, O’Dell was exercising that part of her brain, the prefrontal cortex, that distinguishes humans from the other creatures on the planet. The very act of writing helps the writer cope, and once the story is written, it can be reread, reorganized, and shared. This organizational ability of the brain is the basis for much of what we consider sane and sacred about being human. While Carol O’Dell can’t erase her mother’s suffering or her own, she can write about it, choosing her words and phrases and images. These simple tools let her organize events into a story. And through this process she can reclaim some of the humanity that was lost and offer it to us as a gift.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Write to celebrate midlife crisis

by Jerry Waxler

A lot of people over 50 look down the road and spot what looks suspiciously like a finish line. We pause, ask a few questions and then shop for a sports car, an RV, or an affair. But after we pay for our fling we usually have more questions than when we started. For a more lasting solution, try writing your memoir. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound as glamorous as some of the more expensive responses to midlife but it turns out to be far more satisfying.

By finding the stories of our life we reclaim the adventure, the romance, and the mystery we’ve already lived through. When we put our youthful indiscretions on paper we gain insights not only about who we were then but who we are now. Rediscovering our youth, we see how our actions fit in the grander scheme of things. And we no longer take youth for granted. We savor it. This second look lets us endow youth with wisdom.

To understand how writing might work in your life, consider my mother. Starting from her 70’s, she woke early every morning and for the first hour or two of the day, she wrote. She wrote letters to old friends. She wrote notes about her past. She prepared talks to present to the clubs she belonged to. Occasionally she found a book she thought would interest her peers. The manager in her apartment campus posted a notice that Sylvia Waxler was giving a book review, and people showed up to listen. After staging a few such events, she became known as the book review lady. Strangers and acquaintances stopped her in the lobby to discuss her last review, and tell her about a book they were reading and why she might like it. They showered her with friendliness. She turned out to be one of the best liked 87 year old women I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

But it seems I have digressed. What does an 87 year old lady writing book reviews have to do with someone much younger trying to find a renewed sense of life? I think by writing every day Mom found the fountain of youth. And her audience knew it. They weren’t pouring admiration on her because she gave the best book review they ever heard. As she pried into the meaning of books, and then reached out to an audience to share her ideas, she was creating the story of an old woman who kept going. She wasn’t telling them what to do. She was showing them what one person could do. Her story gave them hope.

It turns out that stories are the only tool we humans have for understanding life’s trajectory. So if you want to enhance your experience of being you, haul your memories out of storage, line them up, and organize them. The mishmash of events falls into place. Armed with this organized view of your life, you begin to appreciate its form. By seeing where you’ve been, you open up to the possibilities of where you are going.

I can’t explain exactly how writing will help you feel better about your life journey, since you will approach it in your own unique way. But here’s how it has worked for me. After writing for a while, I realize I’m in the thick of my own vibrant story. Life becomes more engaging. Now, my curiosity propels me forward, and as I look down the road I see glimpses of the next chapter in this fascinating journey.

Writing your memoir grows neurons

by Jerry Waxler

For most of the twentieth century, scientists believed we are stuck with the neurons we were born with. Well, it was actually worse than that. After birth our neurons started dieing, and it was all downhill from there. But then, in one of the great flip-flops of the last 100 years, neurologists now say we can grow neurons at any age. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how. “Use them or lose them” is appropriate not only for muscles. It’s also true for brain cells. So in addition to exercising to my body, I also exercise my brain. By exercising that part of myself, I not only prevent it from dieing. I help it grow. (If you are interested in more information about the science of growing neurons, or “neuroplasticity” check out the blog at the end of this entry.)

Most people find working out boring, preferring to get their physical activity doing something enjoyable, like playing tennis or gardening. Similarly, you can find brain exercises that are fun and productive. If you want an activity that can keep your brain growing and vital, try writing a memoir. Writing about your life, in my opinion, is the mother of all brain exercises. It forces you to search for words, puzzle out phrases, and organize stories. So while you’re writing, you are developing neuronal connections in your frontal cortex. That’s the body part that enables you to plan and think. And while you’re exercising your brain, you are also shaping your ideas about who you are and where you fit in with the world. If you tell a good enough story, you can share it with others. And you might even be able to sell it and add money to the long list of benefits.

When I was in my forties, to gear up for the second half of my life, I started to read self-development literature. One of the best was Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It changed my life by pointing out that while most of my effort went into my employer’s success, I also needed to invest in my own skills and satisfaction. This magnificent concept put me through graduate school where I earned a Master’s degree in counseling when I was 52.

There were a couple of other concepts in Covey’s book that made a difference. One is his suggestion to write out a mission statement of what I want the future to look like. At the time, I was unenthusiastic about writing my values. I thought the exercise was too abstract. But later, when I became interested in memoir writing, I discovered the value of telling the story of life, and I recognized that a mission statement is simply a story that leads towards the future. So my self-help idea of writing memoirs made Covey’s idea of a mission statement more meaningful. Here’s how it works. Write about my life. See that life is a story. Write about the next chapter in the story. A self-help strategy is born.

What does Covey have to do with growing neurons? For one thing, according to neural science, self-improvement develops the brain. Follow good habits and your neurons will grow. But Covey also advocates a more direct approach. His habit called “sharpening the saw” is based on the observation that when you cut wood with a dull blade, your task takes longer. To work more effectively improve the blade. He’s talking about the things we do to take care of our physical and mental health, staying active, staying balanced, building skills. I suggest adding “growing neurons” to the list. What better investment could you make in your own future than daily exercise to maintain your brain? And my favorite exercise, with the most direct effect is to write your memoir.

For more about the science of brain development at any age check out the blog Brains on Purpose The author of the blog is Stephanie West-Allen, a lawyer who is interested in the way brain science can help reduce conflict. She has teamed up with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, a leading researcher and author in neuroplasticity. The blog is loaded with references to neuroplasticity, and is a good starting point for learning about the general issues of exercising (and changing!) your brain.

Boomer memoir is a step towards social activism

by Jerry Waxler

Terrorism! Melting ice caps! Another traffic jam! When is someone going to do something about this mess? While I am waiting for “them” to change the world, “they” are waiting for me. It’s time to break this impasse by taking action. But how? I already tried to bring about world peace by disrupting a campus when I was in college in 1968. It was scary confronting a mob of police, and I don’t believe the world has become more peaceful as a result of those actions. Now that I’m older, I’m looking for better methods. I recently became inspired by a talk hosted by the “Coming of Age” organization in Philadelphia. The main speaker was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, who echoed the sentiment of his book, 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America in which he claimed that I can join an army of new oldsters to help move the world in a positive direction. A week later I went to another Coming of Age event and heard similar ideas eloquently delivered by Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

When I was a kid, I thought that older people were the problem. They seemed so invested in the status quo. Now that I’m one of them, I find old people aren’t so bad after all. In fact, I feel just as passionate about changing the world as when I was 20. While Novelli and Freedman spoke of a variety of ways that others have chosen to pitch in and move their own little corner of the world, I have a grand idea. It seems to me that the missing element in modern civilization is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of learning from our mistakes. And in my opinion, that’s where the army of us oldsters can help significantly. We’ve seen the world go by for more years than others have, and have gained an appreciation for what matters in the long run, and what fizzles out.

It’s not that I have all the answers. But if there is any wisdom at all to be gained from experience, and my experience tells me there is, then I’d say we need to communicate more of our life story. And we’ve been born at the perfect time. Just as boomers are reaching “that certain age” technology has provided new opportunities for us to collaborate. The printing press brought ideas from individual minds out into the public, broke us free from a layer of oppression, and opened the way for the Renaissance. The internet makes the printing press look like an old relic. We’re ready to take this thing global, and who knows what rebirths we can bring about?

By developing a community of thinking people who talk about life in an inquiring way, we can learn from each other. Your wisdom is contained in your life experience. Share it with the world! Even if you don’t know how writing could change your world, start writing anyway. Your experience turns into stories that are authentic, in a voice that is authentically yours. That’s all that matters now. Find the authentic voice and share the authentic experience. As you go, you’ll discover the sense you’ve made of your past, and then discover the impact your experience has on others. By writing and organizing your story, without even knowing how, you are already beginning to serve. And like any service to others, you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.

Writing about life will give you more energy. Even if you already have plenty of energy, writing will give you more. And if you are too tired to write, writing will wake you up.

Writing will make you more knowledgeable about how to write and how to tell stories. You can press these enhanced skills into service as you discover things you want to share with the world.

By writing about your own life experience, you open up parts of yourself to others. This makes the world a friendlier, more intimate place to live.

Write for a cause, write for a community, write for posterity, write to share yourself. Write to change the world.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Should I write a memoir after I’m retired?

 by Jerry Waxler

Many people intend to write more after they retire, because they will have more time. I agree that you will have more time when you are no longer working a day job, but I’m not so sure that it’s free time you need more of. In my experience, more free time does not necessarily lead to more writing. It’s what you do with your free time that matters.

If you look at your free time as time to relax, then more free time will just mean more relaxing. Writing requires a shift in your attitude towards free time, and you can start making that shift right now. The trick is to realize that once you start writing, even if you only last for ten minutes, you will have energy than when you started. Once you develop the habit of creating during your free time, it will stick with you, and carry you towards your goals whether you are working, or after you retire.

When you go to work, you’re on a schedule. Your actions are well-defined, driven by the needs of the business. The people who work together expect each other to do their share. Writing lacks these pressures, and on the surface, this lack of pressure seems glamorous. Be your own boss. Work when you want. But when you actually try to produce readable, or even publishable material, independence loses its glamor.

Now instead of having someone tell you what to do next, you have to tell yourself. There’s no one to sort priorities, give you direction, or warn you of the consequences of slacking off. There are many other things calling for attention: television, the grandkids, or the tennis court. And in the back of your mind, or perhaps right there in plain view, is your belief that free time is down time. “Why should I work in my free time?”

My answer to that question is “Because creativity makes me feel better than anything else I could be doing with my time.” Through experimenting, I’ve found that by writing, I invest energy, but then get back more than I put in. This experimentation has opened a new chapter in my life. I found that by persistently writing, I have nurtured the sort of enthusiasm typically expected only in entrepreneurs or pioneers.

Once you see writing as a contribution to your life, you’ll cherish your free time as a time to create. You’ll find ways to get yourself to the desk. You’ll start habits to help you organize your material. You’ll set goals, even modest ones, that turn your free time into the luxurious glamorous opportunity to create something you can enjoy and share. It’s an awakening, not a retreat.

Start as soon as possible, like after you finish reading this. Take ten minutes and write about the last time you saw your childhood home, or describe your best friend in high school, or list five things you did that pleased your parents, and five things that displeased them. If you feel better, invigorated, satisfied in some sublime way, you have used your free time wisely.