Every so often, I teach a class called “Writing Your Life Story.” Most of the people who are there for classes are senior citizens, who, for the most part, have been urged by family members to come.

As they introduce themselves, it goes something like this:  “I’m Jane Doe, and I’m here because my children keep telling me I need to write this all down—but I don’t know where to begin.”

My first assurance to them all is that they don’t need to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder—their families will be thrilled with anything they put down on paper.  It’s amazing to me how many people don’t feel they have anything of interest to tell their descendants!

I want to tell you about my parents, because they were the epitome of opposites when it came to this. My mother told stories from the time I can remember about her family, about her friends, the small town she grew up in. These were details of an ordinary life that gave me insight into the way times were during the Dustbowl days in Oklahoma. It told me about her life in particular and life in general, and it also brought people I never knew to reality for me through her memories.

Mom had a dear friend, just her age, named Mary. They were both the eldest of their respective families, each with many younger siblings that they were responsible for. Mom mentioned how she and Mary both longed for an d cherished the few times when they could be alone to talk “girl talk” without each having two or three little ones they had to look after.

One of their favorite places to go was the cemetery. They’d both been born in Albany, so they knew the stories of everyone buried there in the small cemetery: The Taylor family, whose six children went berry picking, only to take shelter under an oak tree when a storm blew up suddenly. Lightning struck the tree and killed all by tow of them. The oldest boy crawled to a nearby farmhouse for help, but died later. Out of the six, only one survived. There were no markers on their graves, but Mom showed me where each was buried.

Another grave she showed me was that of a young child who, at eighteen months, crawled under the porch and drank tree poison his father had believed was well-hidden. Mom told me how his lips were stained purple She and Mary had gone to the funeral and it was imprinted in her mind forever.

Christmases were sparse in that time. It was a good Christmas if they each received and apple, and orange, and some hard candy in their stockings, and maybe a doll, in addition, in the better-then-most years. I wrote a story called SILVER MAGIC for an Adams Media Christmas anthology about something she told me. They’d brought home a Christmas tree that particular year, and one of her younger brothers had suggested maybe then could have some tinsel…My grandfather went into the shed and hand-cut tinsel and a star from the foil covering of an old battery. What a thrill that was for them! Yet, who would ever dream that was something that could be done, now, in our world of buy-it-already made?

From Mom I learned about our family ancestors—where they’d come from and who they were. As a child, I thought of them as a story she told, but as I grew older, they became real people to me.

I learned about her, too—how, as a teen, she’d pool her hard-earned money with her younger sister, Joyce, to buy the newest Hit Parade Magazine with all the lyrics to the latest songs. They had sung together from the time they knew how, adding more harmonies as more sisters came along.

My dad never talked about his adolescence much. Even though he and Mom grew up together in the same small community, he never had much to add to the conversations. What I know of his family, I learned mostly from my aunt, his younger sister.

Why write it all down now? Because most people never believe they’ll run out of time. “Someday” never comes. My mom had such fascinating stories, filled with tenderness, charged with emotion—stories that made it seem as if I was there along with her as she spoke. She was a painter, an artist, and she could paint pictures with her words, as well.

Mom always had good intentions, but like so many, never found the time before it was too late, and Altzheimer’s took away that ability.

I will write it all down…all that I can remember of it. But I can’t help thinking how I wish she had written her story, with all the vivid details and description she used in telling about it. There is so much I won’t know. So much will be lost, simply because this was her life.

The memories are hers: the hard times, as well as the good—the days in an everyday life…and, the nights, when entertainment was nothing more than the beautiful harmonies of the four little girls, floating in the summer stillness for miles as they sang on the front porch…in a much simpler, slower time.

If you are interested in getting started on writing your life story, or know someone who is, I will be glad to e-mail you some questions that I use in my classes to help you get started. Just contact me at fabkat_edit@yahoo.com

Cheryl’s Amazon Author Page: 


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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
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30 thoughts on “I NEED TO WRITE THAT DOWN”

  1. My 101 year old great aunt just recently died and my sisters and I realized that we really knew little of her [and our grandmother’s, she passed over 30 years earlier] early childhood.. But we came to the realization that it was hard for her to face the hardships of her father’s mental illness and the death of a sibling.. etc. but she did share many happy events via taking in scrapbooks that caused her to recall people and those events!

  2. Beautiful post, Cheryl! And thank you for this reminder, it is so important to collect the stories of past generations as they have so much to offer.

    One of my favorite memories is traveling through Nebraska with my grandmother one summer, and every town held a story and memory. I just sat back and let her talk prodding her with questions if she thought she was talking too much. I’ll never forget when we passed an old train stop and she said, “That’s where my momma left us. She said she’d come back for me, but never did.” And she said it just like it was nothing, but by the end of the trip I got the whole story. It was a priceless experience.

    I tell people this all the time. In fact I did a library event last night and I autographed books with the words Write Your Story.

    I think everyone should just do it. It doesn’t have to be literary and you don’t have to think about making the New York Times bestseller list. Everyone’s got a story and that story is INTERESTING, of course to the people that love you, but really interesting for it’s own sake.

  4. Hi Cheryl, I so get what you’re saying. I loved the stories my gramma told me and wish I’d written them down. I am seriously tempted one of these days to start a family search on my ancestry. I love going through old family pictures and making up stories, but real life is just as fascinating, too.

    I would love the questions and will get back to you. xoxoxo

  5. Cheryl, what a beautiful post. I think it’s so sad when all the family stories and events get lost and are buried with the person. My mom wrote down a little but not near enough. And now she’s gone and what she didn’t get around to telling is lost. I wish I could ask some more questions about her life. I’ve started writing things down that I remember for my grandkids. I’m not sure they’re interested. At least not yet. But maybe someday they’ll want to know what it was like for me growing up. At least I’ve made a start. I hope I get it all down before I reach the end of my life.

  6. Cate,
    I know what you’re talking about–my mom, too, had a way of kind of skimming over the awful parts (and I’m sure there were MANY during those hard times!) and focusing on what they HAD rather than what they didn’t have. I’m so glad she told me some of the things she did–I remember my grandfather (who died when I was 10) as a stern rather “mean” person–probably due to his strokes. But Mom told me that he was called “Doc” from the time he was little because of his love for animals and the way he took care of them. That’s something I never would have known about him, and it tempers my memories of him. Sometimes the painful memories ARE hard to recall. “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget…” That line from THE WAY WE WERE always rings so true. Thanks for commenting, Cate!

  7. Kirsten…that just brought tears to my eyes. Evidently, leaving children here and there was more common than we realize. What a painful memory that had to have been for her, even all those years later. You are so right–those memories of hers WERE priceless–what a great experience for you, to be able to make that drive with her and hear her talk about the things she remembered–I’m sure that meant the world to her, too!

  8. Mary, THANK YOU!!! I guess I’ve waxed nostalgic the last couple of posts I’ve done, and I’m so glad everyone can relate to them! I want to make a guideline of the stories Mom told me, just write down the events in a notebook, and go back to them and “fill in” as I have time to do it. Then maybe I can piece them all together and write them in order. Oddly enough, it seems that when I write pieces for Chicken Soup or Adams Media, it seems I incorporate her into my stories, if possible, and many of the things she told me about our family and her life I find myself putting into my fictional stories. So I guess she is really always with me in that way, but I want something written down for future generations. It’s amazing how few people actually do it, but so many have the intention of it. So glad you enjoyed the post, and I love that you signed your books that way!

  9. Tanya,
    It is sooooo time consuming. And there are only 24 hours in each day, so that’s one reason I have not delved into it any more than I have. Luckily, I have an aunt who loves doing that, and it’s become quite a hobby for her. She’s met relatives of ours all over the world! Boy, the internet is such a blessing in a lot of ways, isn’t it? The thing I so love about my mom’s stories is, at some point, these people became REAL to me–you know when you’re young, you don’t think of them that way, but there comes a time when it happens. They say that kids don’t reach that point of understanding until they are 12 or 13 years old–everything they learn in elementary school about history is by rote. When they are taught about historical figures, it’s like a “story” to them–and they don’t have the ability yet to relate it to an actual historical happening or that this was a PERSON who lived. (Which I just think is fascinating, because I’m living proof of this.)LOL
    Thanks so much for coming by today and commenting!

  10. Linda,
    It really is sad to think of everything being lost when the person dies. How awful it would have been if we didn’t have Laura Ingalls Wilder’s retelling of her growing up days and how things were, and to think, really, she’s the only person we hold up as an example of doing this for that time period! Surely there were others who wanted to write their stories, but for whatever reason, it never happened, or never made it to popularity as Laura’s stories did. I have started a book for each of my kids about when they were little–that’s one thing Mom always said–“Write it down–you think you will never forget these cute things they said and did but you will.” Boy, was she right! And you know, I can read the things I wrote and think, “OH MY GOSH! How could I ever have forgotten when he/she used to do that?” Just a reminder to me that I was one of those who thought they’d never age. LOL Guess everyone thinks like that. I’m sure it will mean the world to someone in the future, Linda–what you write down. I had a great uncle who wrote a little 8 page condensed version of his life, and I treasure that! Just think how wonderful it would have been if he’d expanded on it some.

  11. Cheryl, I have started writting some of my life down but now that breast cancer has shown me how short and precious time really is, I am wanting to do more. I have such wonderful memories of my grandparents that I really want my children to get to know them trough some of my stories but I pray I do not run out of time. Don’t wait….you just never know.

  12. Connie,
    You are so right. Everyone should do this TODAY, including me. You never know what might happen, whether it be breast cancer or a car wreck or whatever comes our way. I decided to stop worrying about my house being a mess and concentrate on my writing. LOL There still aren’t enough hours in the day. How wonderful that you have such great memories to pass on to your kids and grandkids about your grandparents! One of the ladies I had in my classes at one point wrote the story of how her mother and father met–her mother was an organist for silent movies, and her father was a traveling projectionist for them. What a story! Glad you stopped by today, Connie.

  13. Cheryl–very touching and poignant. I love to read the parts about your mother. My mother never told many stories, but the few she did I remember very well. You know I write what I call childhood anecdotes, taking a real event, but adding to it or combining two events to write a somewhat fictional story.
    But when I wanted to write something about Mother, I just wrote about my memories of her life with us. Her life growing up is familiar, but not as interesting to me as my own memories.
    I’d like to have those downloads–I’ll send email you.Thanks for such a sweet walk down memory lane with your mother.
    P.S. I guess you see how important cemeteries were to our parents and grandparents. Not so today, which is sad. I, too, have memories from visiting cemeteries.

  14. Celia,
    The place where I grew up, in Seminole, OK, had a cemetery that you could literally look out our kitchen window and see. It was right next to the park where we all played. So … of course, we loved to slip under the chain link fence and wander through the cemetery, reading tombstones, speculating about what must have happened to them–and remember how people used to put pictures on the tombstones? We always wanted to look at those. In the Albany cemetery, Mom showed me a grave of a little boy whose parents had to move away and leave not long after he was buried. They placed his favorite little toys on the grave–marbles, and a little small wooden horse, just things like that. All those years later–it must have been at least close to 40 years or so, there were still some of the marbles there, and pieces of “mother of pearl” shells. Celia, I love your anecdotes/stories! You really have a gift for those. Thank you for coming by, my dear friend!

  15. Cheryl, ypur post is coming at the right time to encourage me to write a family biograpraphy. My children and relatives have often asked for that book. Our story is so different from most, with a lot of suspense and emotion my children are completely unaware of, and yet they’d like to learn about our origin, ancestors and families. I wonder where to start.

  16. What a wonderful post, Cheryl. Like you, I learned much of our family history from stories told mostly around the dinner table. I heard about church picnics, ice cream socials and eccentric family members from my grandmother and my dad. I heard about how they made their money stretch by using flour sacks to make clothes and repairing hand-me-downs. Pop told me about his older brother and his untimely death at age 21 and inspired the story, The Violin.
    But I never attempted to write my own history. I’d like to give it a try.

  17. Cheryl,

    You can learn so much about a family by how they treat cemeteries. Folks that spend time at cemeteries and point out this person or that grave and share a remembrance are connected to the earth. They feel a great love for family and community. I’m so glad your mom passed that quality on to you. God Bless.

    whose family spends lots of time in the cemetery

  18. Mona,
    You are not alone! That’s what 9 out of 10 people say when they come to my classes! It really IS hard to know where to begin. I always encourage people to begin with their own story, because it is what they are most familiar with. When you finish your story, then you can work backwards with your parents, or some people go to the most distant ancestor they have info on and tell the story chronologically. Let me know if you need some help–I’ll be glad to send you those questions to help you get going.

  19. Sarah,
    I encourage you to give it a shot! I’m so glad you wrote THE VIOLIN and brought so many elements fo that true story to life in your book. I know that had to be a great sense of accomplishment for you, and probably is one of your most favorite things you’ve ever done. I remember Mom telling me about how she was ALWAYS late for school because she had all her little brothers and sisters to see to–shoes to be tied, do you have a pencil? stay out of the mud…just everything. When she’d tell me those stories, I would say, “Where was your mother?” “OH! She had another 2 or 3 little ones she was seeing to that weren’t able to go to school yet!” she’d answer. I remember even as a child thinking, “WHAT A LIFE!”LOL Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by today, and please do think about writing it all down–you don’t have to do this all at once–it can be an ongoing project.
    Hugs, my dear friend!

  20. It was a lovely post and close to my heart on two fronts. I lost my mother recently and it wasn’t until I was writing her eulogy that I realised how many pieces of information I was missing about her life. Only yesterday an acquaintance contacted me asking for help to write her lifestory. Heck, I haven’t a clue what to suggest – I write fiction! So I’ll be asking for your questionnaire to send on to her.

    Thanks so very much for sharing this.


  21. Maggie,
    I soooooo agree with you! I think that’s why I loved that book THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH so much. I find it really peaceful to go to the cemetery, and one of my favorite ones to go to is at Ft. Sill here in Oklahoma, where Geronimo is buried. He’s buried in the POW cemetery off in the woods, not easily accessible. One of the most beautiful peaceful places ever. I could wander around in that cemetery, AND the one on base for the “good” Indians (like Quanah Parker and his mother, Cynthia Ann) and just read tombstones all day long. Thanks so much for coming by–I know you are busy and awaiting that new granddaughter’s arrival any day now!

  22. Linda,
    I am so sorry for your loss of your mother. There is nothing like it in this life. I became an “orphan” at the age of 50, when my parents died within 3 weeks of one another. My sister insisted on writing the eulogy, which was fine with me. I know so much about Mom’s life, because I was the youngest in my family, so I guess Mom felt like she had time to tell me about so many of the things she did. I was 6 when my oldest sister went away to college, and 8 when my middle sister left for college, so from then on, I was practically an only child. Mom and I spent a lot of time together (before my rebellious years) that really mean a lot the older I got. Please do e-mail me and I’ll be glad to send the questions on to you for both you and your friend. Thanks for coming by today, Linda.

  23. Cheryl, I agree with you wholeheartedly! I have Mom started on writing her memoirs and will keep encouraging that. I wish I had them for several of my ancestors. There are too many I really know nothing about, even the most recent.

  24. Loraine,
    I know what you mean. We think 2 or 3 generations past wouldn’t be so long ago–I remember my great grandmother–she died when I was about 8 or so. But to put it into perspective, it was her grandfather who was stolen by the U.S. Cavalry from his Indian family and given to a white family to raise. How hard could that be to trace? It wasn’t that long ago! But when you don’t know his real name, only the white name he was given, and you don’t know the tribe for SURE, only what people think, and so on, it’s nearly impossible. I treasure the stories Mom told me about that, because she was told by her grandmother about the life she had, living with this grandfather of hers when her own father became an alcoholic, taking care of her little brother, and of her older sister who went walking down the road one day and never came back. These details are so sketchy, but better than nothing. Keep at it, and try to get on Ancestry–that’s where my aunt has found a ton of info.
    Good luck!

  25. What a great post. I’ve been wanting to write my story down it’s long and convoluted though and very emotional so it’s hard to begin and stop and there’s a lot I don’t remember so not sure how to fill in the gaps.

  26. Hales,
    Just start by writing down what you CAN remember. One of the excercises we use in class it to take a blank piece of paper and write “I remember…I remember…” over and over until a memory of something comes to you. You will be surprised at the memories this triggers and how things all connect.

  27. Cheryl wanted to tell you that I grew up next to a cemctery in a small town. It was my favorite place to play. I had wealth of story starteds and characters right next door. I continue to love cemetaries and my friend and I have been known to buy to go lunches and eat in one when we travel. We find them peaseful and no one spills anything!

  28. Connie, my friends and I used to play in the park that was right next to the cemetery and of course, that’s where we always ended up. I still love them, and I always think one of these days I’d love to join that society that preserves old cemeteries and travel around doing just that. You’re funny about no one spilling anything! LOL

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