Tucked away in a drawer or box somewhere, you might have a packet of old letters from a parent or grandparent, treasured because they capture stories from a distant life. Or maybe you have old photos with names and dates penciled on the back.
Stories from the lives of past generations have always been important, and today, digital technology can help us tell our own and leave a record for children and grandchildren.
But where to start?
The 21st-Century Version of the Epistolary Form: Email
Most of us do our best writing when we’re writing to someone. And most of us find it easiest to write quickly and concisely in the present tense, as we’re used to doing in letters and emails. That’s why the epistolaory novel form was so successful back in the days of the Brontes. But who has time to stand in line at the post office these days? And anyway, aren’t stamped envelopes a little bit last-century?
One of the suggestions I give my writing students as a way to start the process of telling their life stories is to use email – the 21st-century version of the traditional epistolary form. It’s a common storytelling technique, as in Helene Hanff’s memoir “84, Charing Cross Road,” and novels ranging from “Dracula” to “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”
- Make a date with yourself to write an email every week, spending about 15 minutes on each one.
- Use a different subject line for each email to help you focus your writing session. (See the writing prompts below – any of these would make good subject lines). Subject lines will also make it easy for you to retrieve your writing for later additions or editing.
- You’ll probably write most comfortably if you address your story to a family member or friend, but you don’t have to send the email to that person right away. You could write only to and for yourself, like a diary entry.
- Either way, compile your emails by subject line until you’re ready to share with family and friends months or years from now. Whether you’re writing to yourself or someone else, send each email to yourself so that you can file them in your Inbox.
- Email is an easy way to organize your stories. Your email provider will have a way for you to file your sent messages by topic, like Gmail’s Folder, Label and Archive functions.
Should You Send Your Emails?
The privacy of your email account has pro and cons – one disadvantage of emailing only yourself is that your stories aren’t easily retrieved or read by anyone but you. Plus, if you actually send your email to your correspondent, you’ll have the bonus of their response and questions – fodder for writing more stories from your life. Whatever you decide, think about ending each email with a question for future readers to answer. One good story deserves another, doesn’t it?
Here are some prompts to get you started – or come up with your own.
- Best/Worst Holiday: Did it change the way you celebrate now?
- Cars I Have Owned: Describe their features and color, how much you paid, your longest driving trip.
- My Favorite Childhood Dinner: Who made it for you? Do you eat anything like that now?
- Places I Have Lived: List your street addresses, or towns. How old were you in each place, and what was a typical day like?
- Objects I Have Treasured: What did you collect when you were 10 years old? What have you kept in your bedroom, on your desk, in your kitchen? You could organize this story by age, reviewing one object for each decade.
You can also write about historical events and how they affected you, either at the time they happened or in retrospect.
- The Day JFK was Assassinated: How old were you and how did your family react? What do you remember about news reports in the days following?
- War – Going To, Coming Back: Did you serve at home or abroad when your country was at war? Did you stay home when someone you loved left for war?
- Write your story about a weather event that others are unlikely to experience (if you live on the East coast, that might be Hurricane Sandy): How did it disrupt your life, and your neighbors’?
- Man on the Moon: Where did you watch the moon landing? What things were you curious about that day?
- 2000, A New Millennium: What did the year 2000 seem like to you as a youngster? How was that different from the actual turning of the century? What did you not imagine that is commonplace now? Hmmm… you’re reading this at a computer. Or on your phone or tablet.
Subject lines can serve as “titles” of short chapters in your life or more thematically for stories that deal with a borader time scale, and might even go back and forth in time. It’s up to you whether you prefer to take a linear or less linear approach. Either way, you’ll end up with a valuable document about an era and a person.
Got storytelling tips? Please share them in the comments box below.