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.

Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, transforms life for boomers

by Jerry Waxler

I drove down to attend a Town Meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting was called “Coming of Age, Ignite the Revolution” for the over 50 crowd. I loved the meeting’s slogan, so appropriate here a few blocks from Independence Hall. Igniting revolution seems the right thing to do, in these times when the status quo seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. I wanted to be reminded that people really do change the world. The meeting was hosted by Philadelphia community organizer Dick Goldberg, a Director of Coming of Age. His guest was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, author of “50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America.”

I found Novelli to be charismatic, speaking with enthusiasm and conviction about how AARP was founded 49 years ago by Ethel Percy Andrus, an individual who wanted to help older people, and at the same time saw them as an army of social activists, using their experience to make the world a better place. He had my attention, because I’m hoping that I can direct my own energy towards changing the world, and looking for ways to join with others to do it. Even though  it’s so much easier to meet people online, it was great to be face to face with people who are interested in making the most of life after 50.

The meeting was held at the convention center across the street from the studio of public television station, WHYY, and was being recorded for televising in the fall. I’ve never been to a televised meeting before, so that was a new experience. And when it came time to ask questions, I walked over to the microphone, an amazing feat for me, considering I would have been too shy to ask a question in public before I went through the Toastmasters program. So I really am getting better as I grow older. Thank God for Toastmasters, and the life long development of new skills.

I said to a room full of strangers, “I just celebrated my 60th birthday last week.” This was funny because in that room being 60 was a credential, and so I was actually bragging about it. I continued, “But when I think about what defines me as a boomer, I don’t think about my age now. I think about trying to stop a war in 1967 by sitting in a university building. I’m not interested now in protest, but am interested more than ever in making the world a better place. I came here tonight looking for institutions that can help. I always thought of AARP as an instrument of social self-defense. It sounds like you’re saying that AARP can also be an institution of social development. Is that true?”

In Novelli’s opening remarks he had talked about AARP as such an institution, but he kept coming back to individuals doing it on their own. I want institutions that can pull people together and create change, and wasn’t sure how much he was assigning to me alone, and how much his institution can help people work collectively. At least now I know the intention is there, and want to learn more about how it is helping.

After the meeting I met a couple of people involved in the Center for Intergenerational Learning, based at Temple University, and learned about their programs. Robert Tietze, Executive Director of Experience Corps, a program in which senior volunteers mentor school kids, including a branch at my old elementary school, Pennypacker, in West Oak Lane. And Aviva Perlo, Peer Counseling Coordinator of Intercommunity Action, Inc, a program in which seniors coach other seniors

My original goal was to learn something that I could write about in my blog about memoirs, and I thought the evening was wrapping up a little skimpy in that area. Then a woman asked me what school I had been protesting at in 1967. I told her it was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She said, “I was there, too.” I studied her face, trying to imagine if I ever saw her pass me on the campus. Every once in while, the wind blows and the veil of time flutters. Forty years ago, 1,000 miles away, I was hoping to change the world, and now, here in Philadelphia is a woman from that same time and place, trying to work towards social change, at Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning. Ahh.. There was the lesson I was looking for. This coincidence reminded me that life is one unified flow. But I don’t need to passively wait for coincidences. I can do it myself. Memoir writing is a form of personal activism, that links together the past and present, and makes the journey of life more whole.

60’s Nostalgia memoirs of growing up black

by Jerry Waxler

I am reading two memoirs right now written by blacks about their journey through the 60’s. They are George Brummell’s Shades of Darkness, and Tommie Smith’s A Silent Gesture. They are two very different books, and reading them at the same time I can look for things that are different and things that are the same. Reading memoirs is a great way to learn about writing them.

Both of these books are about growing up poor and black in the segregated south. That’s proof that what was incredibly boring and mundane while you were living it as a child can years later become fascinating in your memoir. If the reader has never experienced that side of life, it gives a window into something they didn’t know. If the reader did experience those things, the book can evoke nostalgia, that fascinating emotion that transports us into our own memories. Since I’m not black, reading the history of these two black men during those times informs me of their individual struggles, and the eternal struggle that human beings have always fought against the oppressive confinement of a dominant culture. There is also a degree of nostalgia for me as I am transported back into that great swell of civil rights compassion that filled the boomers’ “first golden years” – the sixties.

The differences  between the two books are also instructive. George Brummell’s book is written in scenes. You can visualize the events on every page, feeling the Vietnam battle scenes, and then feeling what it’s like to learn how to get around while blind. Like a work of fiction he brings you into the scene, but doesn’t comment on it, letting you walk in his shoes and draw your own conclusions. Tommie Smith’s book is almost the opposite, with relatively few scenes, and a great deal of discussion about what he was thinking and why he did things. The two different styles could help you see for yourself how to build (or not build) suspense and emotional intimacy with your reader.