Sister Prim, my visiting teacher, told me her husband is writing his life story and she needs to get started on hers. The Prims have unusual experiences to write about—having served as LDS missionaries in Africa—and I hope they write them up in an engaging way. Unfortunately, most Mormons following Church admonition to write their life stories create autobiographies about as interesting as Gospel Doctrine lessons.
Two of my aunts who are sisters-in-law shared their life stories with me. Except for the names of towns and nuclear family members, the stories are nearly identical—and formulaic. Each story tells place of birth, genealogical information of parents, grandparents, and siblings. A few childhood memories are included then a jump to their marriage, births of children, their marriages, and birth of grandchildren. Church callings are listed and a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel.
Aunt Charity and Aunt Mercy were rugged individuals with very different personalities and ways of seeing and dealing with the world, but they—the main characters—are missing from their life stories. Descendents who may read these stories will not learn of Aunt Charity’s zest for learning or Aunt Mercy’s earthy sense of humor—and I doubt the obligatory testimony bearing will strengthen anybody’s faith.
The oral histories I did of my uncles are filled with hilarious stories. Recording and transcribing their stories was great fun as their personalities and our weird family sense of humor exploded onto the written page. I wish my aunts had just told stories that were meaningful to them instead of trying to follow a pattern that would be “faith-promoting” for their children and grandchildren to read.
Of course, it’s easier to tell a good story than to write one. And some people even censor themselves orally. When I recorded Uncle Duke’s stories, Aunt Charity tried to stop him from telling about the time my dad had worms as a child. Worms were pretty common in those days, but Aunt Charity didn’t want that information in our family history.
I started writing pieces about my life after taking a class from Mormon poet, Emma Lou Thayne. She encouraged us to write stories about meaningful events rather than autobiography. I created several good pieces during her class then set it aside for other projects. I recently started writing about my teaching experiences at Utah State Prison and found that unconnected stories didn’t work well because I’m writing about a place I need to describe for most readers. I started a chronological narrative, read through it, and was bored. How could that be? I was writing about an interesting place full of unusual characters.
I thought about the most fluent writer in my writing group. Ron is the only one with no college degree and his narratives flow. He often starts writing just a couple of hours before we meet. Why were his narratives so full of life and mine as dry as a vacant lot in St. George? Fortunately, a friend urged me to read Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir. There it was in black and white: Put yourself in the memoir.
Ron is not hampered by academic detachment. He responds and reacts to the events he relates. My narrative was essentially a list of events—many of them strange—but with little indication of my responses. Now I’m revising my experiences to include what I was thinking and feeling while navigating the perils of prison employment.
I suggested Emma Lou’s class to Sister Prim. Maybe I’ll lend her my Birkerts when I’m through. Or if she prefers an LDS author, Signature Books has published Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read by Dawn and Morris Thurston. I haven’t read it yet, but have heard good things about it.