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Share Your Treasures by Writing

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Al Perry

Al Perry, a former journalist, is the founder and past president of Winston-Salem Writers, a nonprofit group. Al leads writing workshops in the Triad and in the adult outreach program of Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. He also is active in Second Spring Arts, a Winston-Salem organization celebrating the creative work of people age 60 and above. A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, Al writes and edits fiction and nonfiction. For more information, send postal mail to Al Perry, Post Office Box 11644, Winston-Salem, 27106.

Last month I cleaned out a closet and came across a box left to me by my mother. Inside lay dozens of black-and-white photographs of strangers. I saw no names, no notes, no inscriptions. Most of the men, women and children in the photos were ancestors, I suppose, but I couldn’t identify a single one.

What I do know is that all those people, long departed, had family and life stories to share. Their stories are lost to me forever.

My loss gave me added incentive to persuade others to share their own family and life stories while there’s still time. Our stories are like fingerprints: no two sets are identical. Each collection of stories, no matter how incomplete, is a unique treasure—and a treasure that will grow in value if it is shared.

“Makes sense,” you might say, “but where do I start? How do I start?”

Start with your own memories. That’s easier than you might think—provided you use the right tools. Call them “prompts” instead of tools. Prompts are objects (or thoughts!) that trigger memories of people, places, happenings.

 

Make A Treasure Quilt

In one sense, searching memories for family and life stories is like making a quilt. You could start with a pattern, a blueprint, a theme. Then you could create panels— stories—to weave into the quilt.

But choosing a theme can be difficult, even counterproductive. Many of the folks I’ve met in my workshops find it’s easier—and a lot more fun—to create the panels first and “stitch” them into a treasure quilt later.

Here are few tips:

(1) Start digging for story ideas “near the surface of the mine”—memories of recent or especially memorable life events. Make notes. Write the easiest stories first

(2) Set aside time to write (or research) every day. Make your treasure quilt a serious project.

(3) If possible, talk with someone who might have a memory of the person or place or happening about which you may want to write.

(4) You don’t have to “be a writer” to share a life story. Tell it to yourself (or to someone else), then write it down. Or dictate it into a digital, handheld recorder.

(5) Don’t bother with your spelling or grammar in the first draft of any story. Polishing comes later!

(6) Remember that the first draft of any story is just for you. Don’t let internal censors muzzle you. To repeat: Polishing comes later.

(7) Think about stories you have heard that intrigued or entertained or educated you. What captured your attention: the characters, the places, the action, the outcome?

(8) Make a list of the “characters” in your stories—the people. Before you write anything involving them, jot down a few details: what they looked like, how they sounded, how they acted. Do the same thing with lists of notes about places and events.

(9) After you finish the draft of a story, set it aside for at least a week while you work on something else. Then go back and revise the draft if necessary. A good story ages well.

Most important of all, take the time to find out whether you’re enjoying the research and writing. If it’s no fun, take up another hobby!

“Everybody in the world has their story, and every meeting of one with another begins another story.”  —Ursula K. Le Guin, author and teacher.