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Older writers turn to memoir

24 October 2011

There is an increasing trend for older people to write their own memoir and then to self-publish it, sometimes in a nice gift edition.

For many people looking back over their lives, the motivation for this is to set it all down for the family, particularly the grand-children, so that the story of their lives will not be lost but can be passed down through the generations. To have a handsome volume to give to your relatives is one thing, but for your own personal slice of family history to be preserved for the future is also a great motivator.

For some older people tackling their autobiography, the motivation is a form of self-expression, to 'find themselves' and to work out the point of their lives. It's a good retirement project too.

Eighty-year-old Betty Chiang is an example. She had never written anything before in her life, but found the motivation and had plenty of time to set down her story. "I want the world to know my story," Chiang says. "My father's death was a rock in my heart. I want my grandkids to know what happened." She has given copies of her book to her relatives and sold about 50 books to her friends at Channing House, the independent-living home in Palo Alto where she lives.

Many other older writers have different motivations. They may want to tell the story of their marriage, or their business, or their family. They may want to set the record straight or to produce an account of a famous event in history from their own perspective, relating to what they remember and want to preserve. Accounts of the war are often like this and show that different people value different things in their lives.

The interesting thing about these memoir writers is that most of them have never written anything before in their lives. They are tapping into a powerful feeling that 'anyone can be a writer' and the author of their own life-story. There's an element of finding yourself in all this. Many however will take writing classes in order to get the hang of this writing business and to understand how to approach a memoir, often very useful advice if you have a tendency just to plunge in. Organisation is key and you need to start with collecting and organising your material before you actually get down to the writing.

The other thing which has made the difference to the memoir trend is the vast growth in self-publishing, which makes it practicable to produce a memoir in small quantities, a form of private publishing which enables the writer to remain in control of their book.