I learn so much from my clients, especially those who are in their eighties or nineties, because they have lived lives very different from mine and witnessed history that I know about only secondhand if at all. In the few years I’ve been helping seniors write memoirs, I’ve greatly expanded my understanding of everything from immigration to World War II to the civil rights movement to the early days of television production.
But I get ideas from my clients, as well – and from their families. Including tribute interviews was an idea that came from a client’s children, who wanted their own chance to weigh in on their mother’s life. From that project came the idea of inviting other family members to be interviewed about what the memoir subject meant to them, what lessons they learned, what memories they cherish – now a critical component of the memoir for many of my more recent clients.
Right now I’m finishing a project with a client whose daughter-in-law – who happens to be my friend Leigh – came up with an idea that had never occurred to me before. She pointed out that there was something else unique about her mother-in-law, Patsy, besides her recollections of an unusual life and her family photos: her handwriting.
Of course, I thought. Handwriting. What could be more unique to an individual than that?
So Leigh decided to ask her mother-in-law for a handwriting sample, though the two of us kept trying to think of something else to call it since “handwriting sample” sounded so oddly forensic, as if we were gathering evidence from a crime scene rather than commemorating a life.
We never did think of a better term for it, but Leigh took responsibility for obtaining it, and, immersed in the myriad details of readying the book for publication, I didn’t give much thought to what the handwriting sample would say. So I’m not sure whether it was Leigh or her mother-in-law who came up with the idea of Patsy writing by hand a letter to her family that would be reproduced in the opening spread of the book.
It was a wonderful idea – one I only wish I’d thought of myself, though of course not all of my memoir subjects would necessarily choose to write this kind of all-inclusive letter to their family members (and, by extension, to anyone who chose to read the memoir). From my perspective, though, almost as interesting as what the letter says is just the idea Leigh had about preserving Patsy’s handwriting. Because of course, she’s right: like faces or voices, handwriting is unique to each person, and the sight of it tends to evoke in us anything we know about the person whose handwriting it is. And like voices and faces, it can be forgotten so quickly once the person is no longer among us. My parents, my sisters, my husband, my grandparents, even my grade school friends: I hear each of their voices when I see their handwriting.
So I’ll steal an idea from this client and encourage future memoir subjects to do the same thing – to create an image of their handwriting that we can reproduce in the book. It may not say quite as much about them as their life story itself does, but it’s yet another component adding texture and resonance to the portrait of who that person is.