Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Memoirs and memories

Recent conversations with potential clients for personal memoirs have made me think a lot about who tells stories and what kinds of stories they tell.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new for me. Since first becoming interested several years ago in helping people to write their memoirs, I’ve devoted plenty of thought to questions about personal story-telling. But as we consider more and more potential projects, the questions become increasingly interesting.

For example, because much of our potential clientele comes from the senior demographic, where memory loss is sometimes an issue,we’ve been asked how we can write about someone’s life when his or her memory seems so spotty. That’s an easy one for us to answer: we can bring in family members and close personal friends of the subject to help jog his or her memory, retelling stories that the memoir subject has told many times in the past. 

Sometimes these stories help the memoir subject to remember related stories. Sometimes one family member will remember one anecdote and another family member will remember a related one, and soon we have a whole stream of stories flowing.

But just as often, family members who think their elderly relative will have trouble with a memoir project because of perceived memory loss is pleasantly surprised to find out that the subject can remember stories from the past just fine. This makes sense, actually: memory loss in seniors often relates more to short-term memory than long-term. As the typical joke goes, people who can’t remember where they left their car keys can still remember the name of their second grade teacher from 80 years ago. But this works to the advantage of us memoir writers. We don’t need to know where your car keys are; we need you to remember what matters to you from the past.

Questions also arise about what people may not choose to tell. Our answer is that we help people write memoirs, not autobiographies. They are free to include or leave out whatever they wish. Accuracy is certainly helpful, but comprehensiveness isn’t necessary. We encourage memoir subjects to tell the stories they choose to pass on and leave out the ones they would rather not have figure into an overall reflection on their lives.

What becomes more apparent to us every day is that not only does everyone have a story to tell – after all, that’s the basis of our memoir-writing business – but everyone also has someone who wants to hear their story. It may be a large and diverse audience; it may be just one person. It may be several decades of students or devotees of someone’s professional persona; it may be one spouse or one child. But we have yet to find anyone who can’t find a single ready ear eager to hear the story they can pass on, or a single ready pair of eyes to read the text, increasingly engrossed in the story of a person they thought they knew but about whom they may still have so much more to learn.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

When things change

Phone calls are not the typical means of communication among my friends and me these days -- we're much more likely to email, Facebook-message or even text -- so it was unusual that on Thursday, I had not one but two fairly lengthy phone conversations with friends.

And coincidentally, both conversations were about changes they were facing. Friend A had just accepted a new job; Friend B was contemplating a house purchase.

The conversations were significantly different, the only common thread really the theme of change. Friend A was thrilled with what she was facing. After several years working part-time in marketing and office management for a very small business, she was about to start a full-time position with a larger company in a different line of work. I expected her to balk at the longer hours -- 9 to 5 instead of 9 to 2 -- but that part didn't seem to bother her at all. She was excited about new people, new challenges, and a new workday schedule. Her teenage kids were up for the challenge of adjusting to doing more for themselves after school, and her husband was encouraging about the extra money she'd be making.

Though I have no wish to make a job change myself, I could certainly relate to her excitement. I was more surprised by Friend B, who after many months of house-hunting had found the house that seemed to meet every one of her family's search criteria and yet couldn't convince herself that making an offer was the right thing to do.

"But it's just the house you wanted," I said, a little bit puzzled. "You won't find a better match. The alternative is to stay where you are. Why wouldn't you take this opportunity to make a change?"

Well, I suppose the answer should be obvious: because some people don't like change. Some people don't like it at all. Friend B is fond of her house and perfectly happy to stay there, because it's beloved and familiar, never mind that she'd been looking for a house just like the one she found for months and so was wavering about whether to take the leap.

I should be sympathetic to this. I used to be a lot more resistant to change myself than I am now. Or not so much resistant to change as just drawn almost magnetically to routine. I liked things to fit into their own established pattern. I liked having household routines, holiday traditions, annual plans with friends, events on the community calendar that I could return to year after year.

And to some extent I still do, but habit and routine no longer seem like the hands-on winner over change and innovation that they once did. A few changes happened that I could not prevent, and I discovered that there was something refreshing and renewing about having to adapt to new situations, even ones I hadn't sought out.

So now I feel differently about change. I appreciate it as a chance to hit the restart button, in a way. Of course, this is a particularly easy time of year to talk about embracing change. With week after week of frigid temperatures and snowstorms, it's easy to look toward the bright side of change. Underlying it is the hope that the season and the weather will soon change: warmer temperatures, longer days. In the middle of October, with school successfully underway and the days full of blue sky, sunshine and golden foliage, I'm perhaps less likely to sing the praises of change for change's sake.

But other times it seems like a not unwelcome sign of aging. Yes, in my 20s and 30s I loved the idea of tradition and routine, but I eventually learned that things change whether you want them to or not; might as well appreciate it rather than shrinking from it.

So indeed, this is a time of change, for both the friends who called me on Thursday and maybe for me as well. Each in our own way, we will learn to adapt, whether eagerly or resignedly. Nothing stays the same long, regardless of how much we might wish it would. Might as well reach out with optimism to whatever new thing life offers up next.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More snow to come

Clear and cold for the next couple of days, and then, according to the forecasters, more snow.

I feel sheepish in admitting that my heart leaps a little bit with those words.

What is it about snow lately that sparks a pulse of excitement? Why am I finding myself a state more typical of childhood than middle age, in which the prospect of being snowed in once again thrills me?

I’m not sure. All I know is that after several somewhat curmudgeonly years in which a snowstorm, while pretty, connoted all kinds of inconveniences, it seems I’ve reverted to childhood in my delight at the mere words “snow day.”

When I try to trace the evolution of my relationship to snow through the past few years, it begins to make a little bit of sense. As a young professional in my twenties, I lived in the city and walked to work. Snow meant a cold, messy trudge through slush and over snowbanks to get wherever I needed to be, and against a backdrop of gray buildings and parked cars rather than meadows and forests, snow just didn’t seem so pretty or romantic.

Then I discovered another perspective on snow, as a homeowner in the suburbs. In our first home, snow meant shoveling and snowblowing our driveway, and stress over how to get to the office. This was before the days of telecommunications, and a forecast of snow meant a restless night of worrying about the drive to work – or an anxious day in the office thinking about the homeward commute.

Once we moved out to the country, it wasn’t a matter of shoveling or snowblowing anymore. We lived next door to my parents’ farm, and they had all the snow-clearing equipment anyone would need to keep a driveway usable.

But that wasn’t so ideal either. My father took care of plowing on the farm, our driveway as well as theirs, and hearing him out in the middle of the night plowing made me feel anxious and guilty, even though I knew he wasn’t doing it specifically for my sake. Still, I couldn’t much enjoy a heavy snowfall, knowing it meant he was setting his alarm at regular intervals throughout the pre-dawn hours to get out for another round of plowing.

And from there came my kids’ early childhood days, when a snowday brought them glee but me still further worries. Which parent would be the one to miss work and stay home if the kids didn’t have school? By this time Internet connections and other telecommuting capabilities were a natural part of our lives, but little kids and a work-from-home day aren’t a productive mix. It made me happy to see the kids having fun in the snow, but there was still an element of uneasiness as the unmet deadlines piled up.

But somehow in the past few years, that changed. We moved to a different house, where we pay for a professional plow driver whose truck headlights cutting through the pre-dawn darkness don’t make me feel guilty at all. Of course, in the back of my mind is the awareness that across town my father is still getting up before down to clear their driveway, but at least I don’t feel complicit anymore. And the kids, now in middle school and high school, certainly aren’t any trouble on a snow day: their preference is to sleep until ten, read, maybe play a few rounds of ping-pong.

So I suppose my reborn affinity for snow comes from the fact that we’ve come full circle. My life is now at the point where I can feel like a kid again when I hear that there’s snow in the forecast. With my own kids, I can revel in the unexpected chance to sleep late, and then be home all day and not have to dress for work or drive anywhere. While they read or play ping-pong, I can still get work done and not worry about missing deadlines.

Somehow the coziness is back, the feeling of being unexpectedly but joyfully circumscribed by the house for the day, the extra time created by cancellations. It wasn’t something I expected to find again; I had come to assume in adulthood that only kids could really relish snow days.

But I was wrong. And if I have yet another chance this winter – this very week – to remember that, all the better.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Never quite enough sleep

As I so often do, I’m once again renewing my efforts to get more sleep.

This is nothing new. It’s a perennial resolution. The kind of perennial resolution that fails. I always tell myself I need to get more sleep, and I always try to design ways to get to bed earlier, but it’s a plan that never really materializes.

I shouldn’t say that so passively. It’s not as if anyone but me can effect this change in my habits. This change won’t magically materialize; I have to make it happen.

Late evening is just such a gold mine of productivity. Once everyone else is settled into bed, I finally have time to give my uninterrupted attention to other things. Paperwork, or article deadlines, or all too often the frivolity of Facebook.

A friend asked me recently why I use one of the newly popular sleep-tracking apps, a technology tool that tells me exactly how long I sleep each night and how soundly. “It’s the same thing as weighing yourself every morning,” I told her. “It’s not that I actually do anything different based on the number; it’s just that keeping track of it makes me feel like I could potentially use the information to make positive changes.”

“Six hours,” she said disapprovingly, checking the latest number on my sleep-tracking app. “You need to try harder.”

It does seem like there’s no better time for improving one’s sleep habits than midwinter. Bed is the warmest and coziest place to be once the sun goes down. Our evening commitments are few these days, and walks after dinner are no great temptation when it’s well below freezing out. If ever there’s a time for getting to bed earlier, cold dreary February must be it.

It takes effort, but I have to try again to improve my sleep habits, and I have to remind myself: all of these little tasks, the paperwork and the household details – not to mention the siren song of social media – will still be there when the sun comes up tomorrow. There’s no reason I have to attend to it right now.

Last week I came across this useful pointer in an article about stress relief: “Allow yourself a brief period of time to fully relax before bedtime each day—even if it’s only taking a relaxing bath or spending 30 minutes with a good book. Remember, you need time to recharge. Don’t spend this time planning tomorrow or doing chores you didn’t get around to during the day. You’ll be much better prepared to face another stressful day if you give yourself a brief reward of some free time.”

Yes, and I’ll be much better prepared to go to sleep, too, if I read or relax rather than trying to maximize the productivity potential of every single minute up to bedtime.

So, once again, I’m resolving to improve in this area. I’m redoubling my efforts to get to bed early. Yes, it’s a perennially broken resolution of mine. But that’s no reason not to keep trying.