Lifestyle and Living

Is It Time to Tell Your Story? Why Memoirs Matter

Sep 2022 | By Anne Bokma

Writing is a dream vocation for the vast majority older adults — 81 percent according to the Gallup organization. Specifically, many are enamoured with the idea of writing their memoirs as a legacy for their loved ones.

It’s never too late to write your story. Frank McCourt was 66 years old when he wrote his bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes, about his poor Irish Catholic childhood. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Dutch international bestseller The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old,” written by, you guessed it, an 83 year-old, has been sold to more than 35 countries.

Even if you don’t have your memoirs published by a popular press, the ease of self- publishing today makes it possible to see your book in print—and have it on the shelf long after you are gone.

Writing our memoirs can be both healing and transformative.  That’s because writing makes us reflect on our life, to try to make sense of what happened and look for the meaning in it.

Many of our personal stories are rooted in some kind of pain. Writing about them, offloading our concerns onto the page can not only free up mental resources to help us cope with life’s challenges, it can also help dissolve the hard knots of loss, betrayal, regret and guilt that can keep us stuck in the past.

Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa, said, “I think all sorrows can be born if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

Since prehistoric times when people told stories around the fire, human beings have been compelled by a deep desire to tell their stories, even their secrets. This urge stays with us right up until the moment of our death. A friend who works in palliative has heard a number of deathbed confessions: One man admitted to killing someone in a war. Another shared that he’d known his whole life he was gay, but it would have hurt too many people to live the way he always wanted to. And then there was the married woman who told her that she hoped when she got to heaven, she’d meet her lover again and not her deceased husband.

Telling your story doesn’t just help you, it can help others. There’s a good chance that someone who hears your story has gone through the exact same struggle as you. They want to know what you learned. One of my motivations for writing my memoir was to share the difficult experience of leaving a fundamentalist church and the resulting decade-long estrangement from my family due to our religious differences. It’s been gratifying to hear from a number of readers about how they too endured a similar struggle and identified with my experience.

Some people doubt they have what it takes to tell a story, that they don’t have anything interesting to write about. That’s simply not true: every life is filled with its own particular drama, tragedy and comedy. Everyone can do this work. Often what people need most is an encouraging guide and a deadline. For some, being part of a writing circle can be especially rewarding since you get to hear other people’s stories.

Your legacy is not in the photo albums you keep stored in the basement. Photos don’t tell the whole story and in fact can be entirely false. We’ve all smiled in a photo when we felt nothing but despair inside. Only stories can get to the truth of our existence. Write them down for your children, for your grandchildren, for your friends, for yourself. As memoirist Anne Lamont, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, says, “It’s such a gift for someone to create art with the mess and the chaos and the despair of life, to have turned it into a song, a poem, a novel. It’s the hugest gift we have to offer one another.”

Stories tell people who we are and help us remember who we used to be.  Our stories are our legacy. They keep us alive long after we die.

And the older we get, the more stories we have to tell.

So what are you waiting for? Isn’t it time you wrote your story?

Anne Bokma is the author of the award-winning memoir, My Year of Living Spiritually: One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life (Douglas & McIntyre, 2019). She is also a writing coach and memoir workshop leader. Find out more at annebokma.com