Memoir Writing for a Centenarian

by Jack E Nelson

A number of years ago my wife and I visited an aunt and uncle of mine living in a retirement community in southern California. They mentioned to us that they had a neighbor who was 104 years old, and she had recently completed writing a memoir. Being someone with an avid interest in memoir writing, my interest was piqued. I wanted to meet this person.

We accompanied my aunt and uncle to a small church gathering the following evening and, as we entered, they pointed Marion Higgins out to me. She had obviously arrived early and was sitting in a chair near the front of the meeting hall by herself. I would have guessed she was in her early eighties, looking a bit old but clearly still active and capable of getting around. She seemed alert, keenly aware of what was going on.

I didn't wait for a formal introduction, wanting to get some words in before the church service began. I made my way between the rows of chairs to the empty seat beside her and sat down, then suddenly felt at loss of what to say. I'd never spoken with a centenarian before.

She was looking me over, like she knew my type, when I finally just said what first came to my mind. "I hear that you are 104 years old."

Her eyes focused on me with a stern look and, for a long moment, she didn't respond. I started getting nervous. Had I rushed into this too quickly? Was that a stupid thing to say?

When she spoke, her voice was rather harsh. "Young man, in my generation it is considered impertinent to ask a woman her age."

The little twinkle in her eyes that followed let me know she wasn't offended. She just had a great sense of humor, of the "I-got-cha" variety. There was more to her than her age, she was telling me. And when I followed up with questions about her memoir, her eyes lit up and began to dance. We agreed to meet later.

The following afternoon we met in her apartment and she gave me a copy of her book. I loved the title: Ripples on a Quiet Stream. Here was the story of her life.

Knowing how there are many other people who would like to record their life stories but never seem to be able to put pen to paper long enough to get the job done, I queried her on how she had approached the writing task, what it had taken to put it all together.

She related how the writing part was really a delightful experience. Someone in the retirement community had organized a writing group that met every other week. General writing strategies were discussed in the first meeting and those present contributed to a list of possible writing topics. They were told not to start from when and where they were born and work through their lives chronologically, but to think of fondest memories, crucial turning points, most meaningful relationships, favorite places. Other topics were added: first day of school and early school experience; memories of parents; fun times with brothers and sisters; how you met your spouse; etc.

If a job seems too big to accomplish, then break it down into tiny pieces and do one piece at a time. They were instructed to write about each topic as though it was an independent vignette, a micro-drama in one's larger life story. These brief vignettes were shared with others in the writing group every time the group met. The members grew to be a tight-knit little community, sharing intimate details of their lives and exchanging comments on what each had written.

This process went on for over a year. After each meeting there was more homework to do, another story from her life to be selected and composed in writing. The focus was on telling stories, not listing experiences in a chronological sequence or analyzing at length what had happened. Capturing the significance of an event, the influence of a role model, or the atmosphere of a place in two to three pages of writing was the goal for each assignment. Having an audience waiting to hear the next episode helped keep her attuned to making it interesting. Her lively sense of humor came in handy as well.

After a year and a half, Marion had a binder full of life stories and she wasn't quite sure where to go from there. Like she was telling me a little secret, she confessed she had some assistance at that point. There were a couple of helpful people who typed the material up for her. Then she appreciated their editorial assistance. Sometimes it is easier for someone else to see a common theme running through all the different installments. What she had was a collection of well crafted blocks for a quilt. How best to fit them all together took a little help. The result was like a gestalt taking shape, the many facets of a well-rounded life emerging as a whole.

With further help from her editors, photos were added and a local print shop put it all together into a paperback book. Self-publishing is a lot easier now days than it used to be.

In listening to her tell me about her writing experience, what was most notable was how proud she was of the final product. This wasn't just a little book she had written; this was her life, the stories of her adventures, her loves, her sufferings, the lessons she had learned.

I asked her for one more piece of advice, something I should tell others who want to put together the stories of their lives. She thought briefly before answering. "Tell them not to do like I did. Tell them not to wait until they are a hundred years old before starting."

In July of 2004, I was in touch again with my aunt and uncle. They informed me Marion turned 111 the month before - now the oldest Californian - and is doing well, though she has lost much of her eyesight. People continue to inquire about getting one of her books. She always keeps a couple of copies handy and has sold over 800 of them.

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