There were two pictures on the book cover. One was black and white, taken at the corner of 61st and Ellis on Chicago’s South Side. The photo was of a drugstore and outside of it was a mailbox. The other picture on the cover—this one in color—showed five older men in their 70s standing around that same mailbox. The drugstore was gone, the neighborhood had changed, but the mailbox was still there, an old-fashioned relic that pre-dated their friendship. These men grew up together, meeting in the early 40s, and they used to hang out on that corner as boys. The book, Standing on the Corner, was the story they wrote together of those times and their lives in them.
Writing an autobiography is becoming more important for people at the end of their lives than ever before. Retirees have a higher degree of literacy than people before them—for people born in the 1920s and beyond, literacy is essentially 100%. Computers make it easier to write and research, not to mention save and store autobiographies, and publishing companies are set up to make small runs.
While there are a lot of technical reasons why autobiographies are becoming more common among the non-famous, these just augment the emotional reasons. People want to leave a legacy and tell their story. Too much of life is forgotten, and the day-to-day tasks of life often interfere with the ability to remember. Writing your story is a chance to leave a mark: not for the ages, but for yourself and your loved ones, especially your children and their children. It’s a way to let them know the person as a whole, not just the parent or grandparent. Telling the story of our lives is an important step in saying goodbye to our loved ones and ourselves, because endings matter.
Tips for Writing Your End-of-Life Autobiography
Standing on the Corner was shepherded by Bob, the leader of the group. The book contained recollections of the South Side during the Depression, the War Years, and the early 50s before the men grew up. There are photos of amusement parks and playgrounds, stories of people who died decades earlier, including (most touchingly to me, who got to read it) the story of a man who ran the parks in the area, an otherwise-anonymous immigrant whose story was now known to people reading about him on their smartphones. It showed the power of storytelling. It wasn’t just their story, but a story of a world that was gone. It was the history of regular people who lived, loved, and perhaps died in the neighborhood.
Bob took it a step further. Each man sketched out where his life had gone after that, but Bob, who had been partially incapacitated by a stroke, decided to write the rest of his story. He wrote about his Navy years, meeting his first wife, his career, his divorce and second wife, the mother of his children, and their long life together. He wasn’t writing for publishers. He was writing for his loved ones and himself, and that is the first important lesson in writing a biography. Here are some others:
Determine your audience.
There are people who want their story to be read by everyone and their lessons to be disseminated far and wide. And that’s fine. But for most people, their stories are for their families and friends, not for posterity. They are meant to be read by the people who genuinely love them—people who will be most moved by finding out things they didn’t know and seeing the totality of their loved one.
Decide what’s important.
“Important” here can have many meanings. You need to really think about what you want to say and what meant the most to you in life. Bob spent many pages on a fishing trip he took to Minnesota with one of his buddies from the corner named Darryl. His kids had heard of the trip, but it wasn’t until they read the book that they saw how much it meant to him, how it was one of the happiest weekends of his young adulthood. Those memories of moments, not events, are what matters. It wasn’t a dry recitation of names and dates. It was a series of stories that helped show who he was, and in doing so, let even those closest to him know more about him.
It helped that Bob was a natural storyteller, but he wasn’t a natural writer. That’s why it’s okay to get help. There are services available for people who want help with the basics of getting down their stories, and everyone knows someone who can, at the very least, help with formatting or basic computer abilities. Don’t let technical reasons stop you from telling your story. And don’t let the frailties of memory slow you down either.
Reach out to people who are in your story.
It’s easier than ever to find people today to reconnect. If you are writing about a classmate from 50 years ago, look them up. If you find them, maybe you can get their perspective. This can give your story more meaning, and can help you reunite with people. You’ll find out more details and maybe even rekindle a friendship. It will give the book more life.
Use Google to get names and dates and pictures.
It’s a great source of information, and you can augment your memory and even help you learn new things. The Corner boys were able to find a block-by-block map of businesses from when they were growing up in old online city records, and that triggered a lot of memories of places they had forgotten about, including a grocery store where the owner would “give away free candy” (i.e. was terrible at paying attention to 7-year-old punks). They found images and more that made their book richer and fuller. It became their story, but also the story of a particular time and place.
Find a self-publisher who specializes in limited runs.
One of the few benefits of the upheaval in the publishing industry is that publishing isn’t just for huge sellers with 20,000 copies. Places are more open to doing runs for people that just want to distribute to family and friends, with runs of 1 – 1,000 copies. It’s easy to do this any time, and you can always do extra runs if more people want a copy.
Every life has ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, and is full of absurdity along with sublimity, even banality. Your story is yours and no one else’s—it doesn’t have to have an arch of victory. It just has to be yours, told truly and honestly, so that the people you love can know you better. One of the fears that older people experience is the fear that they will be forgotten. An autobiography helps ease this fear because it opens the possibility that people can read my story and remember me.
That’s what was most important to Bob. Because Bob knew that he didn’t have much time left, he was writing the full story, which incorporated and expanded upon his childhood, and then went to the end. His oldest grandson knew him, but he had two granddaughters who were not yet two years old, and he knew that he wouldn’t live long enough to be a real concrete memory. And that’s why he wrote.
He wrote so that his stories would still be told. He wrote so that the people who knew him could read and remember and laugh and cry. He wrote so that his granddaughters would be able to know the man they might barely remember holding them in his good arm while they wiggled with infant joy. He wrote so that his other son, newly married, who is writing these words now, could one day sit with his children, who never saw their grandfather’s face, and read them the stories, so that they could know his heart. He wrote so family and friends would know where he came from and how he lived his life.
Writing an autobiography is an elegant way to say goodbye, because it isn’t a goodbye at all: it’s a warm greeting to everyone who comes after you. It’s a way to sit down by an infinite roaring fire, gather around loved ones, and tell your stories, forever.