By Les Jacobson
Last week I gave a Zoom presentation sponsored by the McGaw YMCA about the value of writing. I acknowledged that the title – “Write As If Your Life Depends On it” – was an exaggeration, but not much. I maintained that writing was like a gift to yourself, because it could make you a better person.
I quoted the great authors George Saunders and John Gardner to that effect. It was something I had originally heard in a writing workshop some 15 years ago from Russell Banks, another award-winning author. He said, “You are never better as a person than when you are writing.”
At the time I was trying to embolden myself to write my first novel, something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. So the sentiment was heartening and encouraging. Still, what did it mean?
I took it to mean the act of writing – of putting pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard or even lips to recording device – is one of the greatest cognitive activities we can pursue, calling on all our mental resources: patience, fortitude, imagination, creativity, intelligence, discipline. And perhaps most important, our humanity.
Research shows that writing engages such brain functions as memory, attention, orientation, reasoning, and problem-solving.
What kind of writing? Any kind: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, speeches, even haiku and limericks. But for purposes of this column, I want to focus on memoir.
Why? For one thing, every adult, no matter what age or experience, has at least one great story in them, and that’s their life story.
After all, what bigger story is there? We are each the star, sole proprietor, prima donna and prima ballerina and chairman and CEO and chief cook and bottle washer of our own unique and singular drama. Not because of any innate ego drive or selfishness. It’s just the nature of the human psyche.
We can only see clearly from the inside. It’s a solitary view. Breaching that insularity is one of the most admirable, courageous, and important aspects of memoir writing.
Memoir writing also has powerful therapeutic benefits. Done properly, with honesty and courage, writing our life story requires us to evaluate and better understand who we are – the choices we’ve made and avoided, our actions, our thinking, the mistakes and regrets but also achievements and acquired wisdom.
Full disclosure: Doing it right can require painstaking research and sometimes lead to difficult conflicts with family and friends who resist having parts of their story told from your – and not their – perspective. And the murky and unsavory stuff that surfaces from all this work can be disturbing.
By its very nature writing forces us to organize and clarify our thinking, to “de-murk” the muddiness in our mind.
Those are the downsides. The upsides are the benefits that accrue: the cognitive benefit of writing itself, the psychic benefit of soul-searching, and the psychological benefit of dealing with issues that need dealing with.
And because most of us tend to look on the bright side, we’ll invariably highlight our strengths, which is something we can share with others.
Some people might prefer just to write for themselves. They feel they can be more honest that way, or they would rather not share their history and inner turmoil.
But I think sharing is an important aspect of memoir writing. For one thing, it helps other people in our lives to hear our story and know better who we are as people, what formed us. That in turn helps them understand themselves better, because we helped shape the way they are as people.
That kind of sharing is especially important between parents and children, so they can learn about your past – which will inform their future. That may not be important to them now, but it will be some day.
If the goal and purpose of life is to get better at helping each other, it may seem counter-intuitive to burrow deep inside for the sake of our writing. But not if the outcome is to come out the other side a better person, better able to help others, for having made the journey.
There was a story in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about a small Alabama town, Clanton, population 8,600, halfway between Birmingham and Montgomery. Last summer in quick succession the town lost its two most prominent civic figures to COVID: the mayor of 36 years and the church minister of 47 years. As the new mayor observed at his predecessor’s funeral: “A world of knowledge was just put into the ground.”
“In small towns like Clanton,” the article went on, “the loss of one or two key figures leaves a disproportionate void.”
Guess what? Anyone’s loss leaves an incalculable void. My mother was born in South Africa and was a British subject when she came to Chicago as a girl. Her family ran a dry goods store on Southport Avenue, a few doors north of today’s Music Box Theatre. My father played semi-pro baseball as a young man, taught George Gershwin to play golf, and worked at the Dodge Aircraft Plant on the south side of Chicago that built many of the B-29 bomber engines used in World War II. You’d think I’d know a lot about these fascinating aspects of their lives. Sadly I don’t, and my parents rarely spoke of it and never wrote it down.
Telling our story becomes almost a moral obligation, an imperative to save that life and to retrieve and preserve those memories from oblivion.
In addition, the act of writing makes us better readers, more alert to the craft and more appreciative of the skill and more sensitive to the message.
At this point someone might object they don’t have much of a story to tell, so why should anyone be interested?
Not true! Everyone’s story is unique and in its own way important to the world. Whether you’ve won a MacArthur Genius Grant or you’re someone who works at Glenbrook Hospital in the COVID ward or drives a UPS delivery truck or hauls garbage or flips burgers, you and I, we are all essential people.
That I think is part of the meaning of the Talmud scripture which famously says, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” As the person writing the story, you are saving your life to posterity, you’re preserving and keeping it from being lost to memory.
And the good news is, it isn’t that hard. If you can talk, you can write. Because writing is story-telling, and story-telling is talking. Before writing, thousands of years ago, stories were handed down by orators like Homer and Demosthenes, who actually sang the lines because it was easier to remember that way.
Singing aside, there are lots of ways to go about telling that story. First of course is to put pants on the seat and just start writing – longhand, short hand, keyboard, whatever. Everyone has had lots of practice: most people start writing when they’re 6 or 7 years old.
Arthur Sullivan, who wrote the music to all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, put it well. He said, “One day work is hard, and another day it is easy; but if I had waited for inspiration I am afraid I should have done nothing. The miner does not sit at the top of the shaft waiting for the coal to come bubbling up to the surface. One must go deep down, and work out every vein carefully.”
The most obvious approach is chronological: from childhood through the teen years and into adulthood.
Another approach is topics or themes. My wife started on her memoir a few months ago. She now has some 17 chapters, with such titles as “The Good Girl’s Club,” about growing up; “The Joy of Popovers” about her love of baking; “Soil Under My Nails” about her love of and frustration with gardening; “I Don’t Like My Name,” which is Ronna, often mispronounced Rona or Rhonda or even Rhoda; “The Luckiest Day of My Life,” about which modesty prevents me from saying more; “My Left Hand Has a Mind of its Own” about her disastrous piano recital; and “Religion – Oy, How Much Time Do You Have?” Good stuff.
I asked Ronna why she was writing her memoir and what she was getting out of it. She said, “I enjoy writing; it helps me to organize and crystalize my thoughts and opinions about subjects that can feel diffuse; happy memories bubble up; painful memories bubble up too but are important to examine; you asked me to [notice how low down on the list that is]; nice legacy for our children; and insight into me for certain select friends.”
This thematic approach is a nice way to proceed because presumably the writer has an interest in all those special topics and can write about them easily.
Of course, a story doesn’t even have to be written, it can be recorded, which some people might find easier. The trick (whether recording or writing) is to work from an outline and make it simple and conversational, not abstract, complex, or highfalutin. With the first draft one needn’t worry about logic, flow, or beautiful language. Those elements can be fixed later. The goal is to get something down.
Then it’s time to revise. There’s no mystique to revision, it’s just a matter of going over what ‘s been written and honing it down – making it more crisp, more colorful, more truthful – in other words, better.
Several years ago, traveling by train from upstate New York to Manhattan, I happened to sit next to the acclaimed writer Gary Shteyngart. He had his laptop open and was working on his latest novel (later published as “Lake Success”). I took the opportunity to ask him if his first draft was tight after which he expanded it, or if he started big and trimmed, like Michelangelo working down his block of marble. Go smaller or larger? He paused a second and said, “Go deeper.”
That said, there are still three problems. I call them the Three D’s: demand, discipline, and deadline. And when the Three D’s are missing, it’s hard to motivate oneself. There’s usually no demand – no one is asking us to write our story. Discipline is an acquired skill and it’s hard. And perhaps most important, there’s no deadline. As every person knows who’s given to delay, there’s nothing like a deadline to get the creative juices going.
To deal with all three D’s at one go, I highly recommend joining a writing class or writing workshop. I counted a dozen in the metropolitan area in a quick online search of “writing workshops Chicago.” Using other search parameters I’m sure you could find many more.
Writing workshops vary, but a core feature is that they almost always require a submission of several thousand words every few weeks. That’s how I came to write the novel I had so desperately been wanting to write, by joining the Wesley Writers Workshop run by the Evanston coaching team of Sharon and Steve Fiffer. Both Fiffers are award-winning fiction and non-fiction writers many times over.
Every six-week session we were responsible for one submission up to 4,000 words. The seven or eight people in our group, led by Sharon and Steve, were highly encouraging but also usually very specific and helpful in pointing out issues of continuity, character development, plot, language and all the other elements that go into good writing.
Other people would “workshop” their memoirs and short stories. I even brought in a scene from a play I was working on.
It was a fun and friendly group and extremely useful in getting me to write.
That’s because it solved the Three D Problem: deadline and demand necessitating discipline – all rolled into one.
The bottom line: The act of writing can make you a better person, and anyone can do it. What a gift to yourself.