Editor's note: Nora Zylstra-Savage promotes individual self-worth and community appreciation of personal life stories through her business, Storylines. She accomplishes this through memoir and creative writing courses which she has been teaching since 1993. "Bridging the Gap," an intergenerational program which she created and facilitates, involves high school and middle school students. The program recently went international and is now being delivered in Holland. As a personal historian, Nora records other people's life stories and brings enthusiasm, humor, and sensitivity to all her programs.

To view a Bridging the Gap Memories and Music International Program performance night, go to www.story-lines.ca.

Personal stories have the power to entertain, heal, and connect you with your own personal truths and beliefs. Reflecting, recording, and sharing stories is an exercise in discovery and validation that is vital for your own and others’ spiritual and emotional well-being. Life stories are the best connection to the past and are important to share with each other, family, and especially the younger generation. They're a window into a different time period.

Before you decide which type or style of memoir is best suited to your life experiences and your writing style, it is extremely helpful to identify the major events in your life. Stop for a moment now to “prime the pump” with the following exercise which I call “Creating a Life Circle.”

Start with a large sheet of blank paper and draw a large circle to the outer edge of the page. Draw a ½” rim on the inside of this circle. Next divide the circle into eight equal sections. Take your current age and divide it by eight — this number (the years number) will be the number of years represented in each section. Start with your birth year and add the years number. So if you were born in 1931 and your years number is 10, the first section’s heading would be 1931-1941, each subsequent heading would be 10 years more until the current year. This allows you to jot down all the major events in your life within the correct section and to observe at a glance the events of your life. If there are blank areas, knowing what came before and after can help you figure out what is missing. If you are planning to only write about a particular time period or a specific set of experiences such as having survived cancer, that span of time can be extrapolated and expanded into a new circle and further divided into smaller time periods for more detail.

Once your life circle has been filled out, you are ready to decide what type of memoir best suits your actual experiences. You may choose from the highlights of your life, an autobiography, a partial memoir or a thematic or a reflective one.

Stacked and scattered,
tall and tumbling,
mounds of records,
each a thought, a feeling,
or a melody.

— Sigrid Kellenter

The highlights of your life, or a life review, encourages you to write about your strongest memories which normally represent a few stories from each life stage or milestone. This form is the most diverse of memoir types, as it allows for a variety of formats and styles in one book. It can be a collection of events, relationship stories, family traditions, moments in time, character sketches, social and political essays, poems, recipes, photos, sketches, or memorabilia; and it normally is presented in chronological order, by theme, or a combination of both. If you can’t remember all the details of a certain event or have gaps between years, or if you simply prefer a variety of writing styles and memoir inclusions, the “highlights” memoir might be your best option.

The second type of memoir is the autobiography, which normally spans from birth to the present day. The autobiography is a detailed factual account of your whole life, which usually adheres to one style of writing. Each chapter could represent a year or several years; chronological order is usually maintained. Photos or poems are not usually included in an autobiography; however, many have a photo collection section either in the middle or the end of the book.

Tapping the trees of memories
boiling down the sap
of long and challenging years,

— Helen Vanier

A partial memoir represents a specific period of time in your life. Many areas and periods of time could be chosen. Consider writing only about your childhood. Liar Liar, Your Pants on Fire is one good example; here the author, Mary Cook, writes about her childhood years growing up in the country during the depression. If you were a teacher, you may only want to write about all your teaching years, including your training, the different schools and grades you’ve taught, and the many, personal challenges, highlights, and insights that you’ve experienced. Consider writing about living in a particular community, town, or city. What about your struggles and triumphs with a sickness or disease? Another partial memoir could detail your experiences during war time, which could include your decision to enlist, the many reactions to this, your training, deployment, and return. Your war stories could also include current reflections on your past experiences or the topic of war. A partial memoir allows you to focus and delve deeper into particular topics, experiences, or periods of time.

Thematic memoirs are another style that you may choose. There are several types within this category. Thematic memoir topics — music, family traditions, travel, clothes, appliances, friends, cars (the list is endless) — continue to repeat themselves throughout your life. All the stories selected must hook onto the theme chosen. An example might be: my life told through the clothes I wore. A book with this theme — Love, Loss, and What I Wore — was written and illustrated by Ilene Beckerman. Other thematic titles might include: all the cars I’ve ever owned, or my spiritual journey.

Internal life challenges are also a choice in this thematic memoir style. You may choose to write more than one thematic life story. Themes could include addictions, betrayal, responsibility, disabilities, familial struggles, life lessons — this list, too, goes on and on. For this type, you need to identify your theme and then consider stories that represent your journey or evolution. These memoirs tend to be the most powerful as they normally represent universal struggles that resonate with everyone’s life in one way or another. An excellent book that provides the structure for you to identify personal themes is Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington.

The final type of memoir is reflective. There are two different styles. For those of you who enjoy philosophizing about life, here is an opportunity to share insights about your life or life in general through metaphoric poetry or prose. You might compare your life to a river with its many branches, depths, speeds, directions, and obstacles. Or you may be fascinated with plants, the environment, the elements, the weather, nature, or even non-living elements. Imagine your life as a sports car, an orchestra, a color, or even a boat. The other way of approaching a reflective memoir is to identify all the major turning points or milestones in your life. Write about each event followed by a reflection describing your feelings, decisions, insights, and directions based on the event.

The driveway is haunted by bodies of cars that rust in weeds and rubble on the edges of towns where nobody goes

— Robert Currie

There are many story styles available for you to choose from. The best thing you can do for yourself, your family, or your friends and even the community is to START. Family members have died, and often with them die irreplaceable stories. A vital part of our social, cultural, and family history will be forgotten and lost. Life stories help you understand your past, acknowledge the present, and create new possibilities for your future. The time is now — Put it in writing!

They Say, I Say

they say
cut to the chase
shorten your stories
I say I’m trying to
share an experience
why must I boil it down
to its essence
deglaze it
evaporate it
to an extract
what will we talk about
in the spaces
around the words
you say I should leave out
slide into reverie
linger with me
      – Joyce Harries