Writing About an “Ordinary” Life

MEMOIR TIP: Finding the Special in an “Ordinary” Life 

Ever feel like “my life was nothing special”? It’s a common refrain among memoir writers. You went to work; came home; cooked; did laundry. Then rinse and repeat, day after day. Where’s the special to write about in that so-called “ordinary” life?

What tools were an “ordinary” part of your household as a kid?

Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought their lives weren’t very special: keep asking questions. Some of the greatest memoir material is tucked away right in the details of a seemingly “ordinary” life.

Here’s a couple of examples:
I once interviewed an old-timer who’d never lived far from the spot where he was born. Turns out he was a virtual living library of nearly-lost skills. He’d grown up hunting and trapping — with fascinating tales to share about his days tromping the mountains and the wild animals he’d encountered. He remembered when the local generator shut off at 9 p.m., along with every electric light in town. And brushes with death? It was amazing that he’d ever reached his 80s! As a teen, he’d once been sent out onto a flooded bridge to help break up a logjam threatening to take out the bridge. His “safety gear”: a bit of rope tied around his waist. Bottom line: he had plenty of amazing stories from a truly amazing life!

“I was just a housewife,” one of my husband’s relatives would similarly protest. But a little prodding later, we heard how her journey to school took her over a railroad bridge — a fine thing, until a train was coming, when she’d have to leap over the edge and hang onto a post until it passed. And she beamed as she told us how she and a classmate were allowed to spend the night from time to time with the warm and wonderful teacher from their one-room school, who’d let them roast marshmallows over the chimney of an oil lamp. Special memories indeed!

So, how can you find those fascinating nuggets? Those details that breathe life into the most “ordinary” life story? Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what special knowledge or expertise you’ve acquired — especially anything unusual by today’s standards. Did you learn the tricks of cooking on a woodstove, or how to skin a rabbit? Did you grew up sewing your own clothes? Tell the story of how you learned, and share the proper steps!
  • Remember how life was different than today during your growing-up years. Did you ride a bicycle or maybe even a horse to school? Get lost in a cornfield? Ever built a treehouse? What adventures did you have that kids today would never experience?

    What did your kitchen look like? No microwave, food processor, or trash compactor? Is there a favorite recipe you remember?
  • What kind of “ordinary” foods did you eat — perhaps something that’s anything but ordinary now? And how was that dinner prepared? Were staples in your family’s diet things that aren’t so common today, like parsnips, liver, or Spam? Did your mom make homemade pies made from home-grown fruit? (Do you still have that favorite recipe? If so, be sure to include it!)
  • What dangers did you manage to survive? Some of those experiences may be very uncommon today! Did you ever get lost in the forest in the snow? Come face-to-face with a bear? Challenge your friends to see who could be the first to swim across a dangerously swollen stream every spring? One of our friends had a simple abscess as a child that was truly life-threatening back then, although today it could be easily cured with antibiotics. Another relative spent an entire year in bed with pneumonia — again, an easily-treatable malady today. Those “ordinary” tales of challenge, hardship, and danger are especially fascinating when viewed backwards through today’s lens!

Bottom line: Don’t dismiss your life as “ordinary.” Remembering the details of that “nothing special” life often turns up incredibly powerful stories — and great memoir material!

Thinking of stories already? Share a few of your special memories with us on our Facebook page!

And if you’d like more Memoir tips, find our book on Amazon!

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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