It seems to me that there has been an enormous subterranean shift in the overall values of society since the inception of the internet and particularly since our enthusiastic adoption of mobile devices. We no longer value hard work, discipline and practice as the road to self-improvement.
In my youth, a major component of education was an emphasis on learning basic communication skills, in writing, in mathematics, and in the study of history, geography and basic natural sciences, so that we could better understand and interact with the world in which we lived. Good students expected to go on to university in order to further their education. Employers expected a certain level of education, particularly for the higher-paid, intellectually-based positions, and it was understood by everyone that the key to a better life lay in improving one’s educational skills and level.
The Hippie Era
During the social upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, there was a change in the education system allowing for more freedom and creative expression and less emphasis on foundational disciplines, which at the time seemed like progress, but in hindsight, led the way to more forgiving and less demanding criteria for success. In effect, society has been dumbed down. We’ve become lazy, allowing computers to replace our critical thinking and do many of our jobs for us.
Once the internet came along, it became easy to stay in touch, communicating by email instead of letters. Particularly in business, in course after course, programme after programme, gurus and trainers tell their students to fail faster, ready/fire/aim, done is better than perfect. This gives permission to the timid to take action without having to develop the skills necessary to achieve substantive success. It’s based on a “magic bullet” philosophy, but this runs counter to everything I’ve learned about skills development. Yes, it’s important to make mistakes. We learn from mistakes, but it’s critical to develop a habit of hard work and practice.
The First Step – Foundational Skills
There’s a theory that we only achieve mastery of a subject after ten thousand hours of practice in any field: music, art, science, mathematics, engineering, and yes, writing.
In order to write well, we must learn the basics — spelling, grammar, sentence structure — the building blocks of written communication. That isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes study, repetition and discipline. But that’s only the beginning.
I think there’s been a profound effect on our society due to the neglect of writing skills. People used to know how to write a good, informative, intriguing personal letter, by hand, and send it in the mail. Yes, we can communicate faster, but something has been lost. A deeply personal connection based on specific intent is now missing. We fire off a text on our phones when we want to connect. We send cat videos to those we care for, instead of spending the gift of time composing, correcting and writing a fair copy before sending the words we put down on the page in our own handwriting to those we love.
Do you remember how it felt to get a lovely thick letter from a dear friend or cousin from whom you hadn’t heard in a while? Maybe it had photos in it. Certainly, it had descriptions of their activities, the things they’d done and seen, news about family and friends. But above all, you knew their hands had touched it. Their fingers made that smudge, or perhaps their actual tears had made that mark on the paper, sharing the news of the death of a loved one. It was a connection that’s missing from the electronic communications we all take for granted these days.
People don’t practice the skills of writing a good letter any more. We text-speak, substituting letters and numbers for words. I had a business partner who communicated with clients this way, insisting that it was faster, but I found it offensive, dismissive and lacking in respect.
Just Do It
I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I believe that discipline is important. Study is important. Skills development is important. Good writing is important and must be practised in order to get better at it. But study without practice is like assembling all the ingredients for a cake, then not putting them together or baking them. The famous Nike tagline, “Just Do It” means exactly that, not “Just Study It” or “Just Think About It”. Until you’ve taken action on a new skill, you don’t truly understand it.
The Second Step – Storytelling Skills
If you’re writing a memoir, it’s not enough to jot down the events that happened in your life, so that your grandkids can read them, even when you’ve included all the grammatical elements of good writing. You also need to develop the skills of a storyteller, which is a whole different aspect of good writing, based on dozens of techniques developed by novelists, bards and troubadours over the centuries.
Telling your stories in a way that people want to read them requires practice. It requires commitment, dedication, discipline and time. It isn’t going to happen overnight. But oh, it’s so worth the effort!
Practice to Create More Memorable Memoirs
So, your own kids want you to write down your stories so the grandkids get a sense of who their grandparents are and were. Where do you start? What do they want to know?
It will differ for each generation.
If they’re youngsters, likely they want to know what you did for fun. They want to know what games you played, what toys you had, what your school was like — anything that they can relate to at their age: the trouble you got into, the outrageous things you did that your own parents would have been appalled to learn about, the pets you had, the activities which are so very different from the activities they do now.
If they’re older or adult, they’ll be more interested in work you did, the household you lived in, the historical events that happened and how they affected you personally.
For example: My own mother was deaf for much of her adult life. I wasn’t aware until I was an adult myself that she’d lost her hearing when she was too near an exploding bomb in the London blitz. And my grandfather, a country doctor, bought a Model T when the family’s horse Peggy died, so that he could continue to make house calls to his patients. He’d never realized how often the old mare had brought him safely home when he’d fallen asleep exhausted after delivering a baby late at night, until he drove the car into a ditch twice in one week. What doctor even makes house calls any more?
It’s stories like this that make a memoir…well…memorable. In our own lifetimes, the things that happened did so because of the times we lived through, and it’s vital that we note them down with as much detail as if we were writing a novel. What’s commonplace to us will be exotic, nostalgic and quaint to our descendants. What we take for granted, because “everybody knows that”, may well be lost forever because, well, everybody knows, so why bother to write it down?
The more clearly we can paint compelling word-pictures, the more impact our stories will have. And the more we practise, the better we’ll get at doing it.
Tips for practising
Schedule your writing time. Make an appointment with yourself to write a little every day, even if it’s only five minutes. If you do, you’ll begin to gain confidence, develop writing skills and build up a collection of stories. If you don’t, you’ll have nothing.
Set a goal. Plan to achieve a certain outcome each day, whether it’s a specific word-count, a certain amount of time, or number of chapters. Having a goal will help you stay focused and committed.
Time yourself. Use a kitchen timer. Set it for five minutes, or ten, or twenty. Hit “start” and just write. Even if it’s gibberish, just write. Don’t edit as you go. Just write. You can edit later. Eventually, your writing will become clearer and more focused. It will improve.
Use a streaking calendar. And no, you don’t have to write in the nude! Every day that you write, even if it’s just for a few minutes, reward yourself by crossing off that date on your calendar. Soon, you’ll have a calendar with every block filled in. It becomes addictive, too. You’ll find yourself not wanting to break your writing streak by leaving one of the days blank, hence the term, “streaking”. You can download and print out (for free each month) a blank calendar at CalendarsThatWork.com but if you want a whole year’s worth, there’s a small fee.