Letters to My Kids 101

Let’s say you’re ready to make the big leap. You’re going to record your family history for – in effect, write letters to – your kids.

Good for you. Nothing like committing yourself to an high-priority personal project to shore up the soul.

Still, right around now you might be asking yourself some questions about how to go about documenting this history.

Where should I start?

Should I go randomly or chronologically?

How do I say to my kids what I want to say?

How can I make it memorable?

And so on, into infinity and beyond .

Well, all I can tell you is how I went about it. I devoted two years to keeping journals for both our kids, compiling more than 100 vignettes, amounting to nearly 70,000 words, all of which last year started to appear in this blog. From my experience I probably gleaned some lessons that I can now turn into a useful tip or two for you.

Even so, I claim no special expertise here. I’ve never studied the art and science of family history, much less published my findings in a scholarly journal. If you’re looking for a proven formula, or a prescription of some kind, or gospel graven in marble, you probably came to the wrong guy.My only expertise is my experience.

But right now I will offer you some advice I consider key. And that’s this: Go at it more or less however you wish. After all, I’m me and you’re you.

For example, you might write letters to your kids using a quill pen to capture your memories in a leather-bound volume, all by scented candlelight. Then again, you might be inclined to videotape your recollections, or chronicle your life by means of a podcast, or start a blog, or a vlog, or text a message a day, or issue tweets.

Hey, it’s your call.

You might want to start your letters to your kids in the present and work backwards in time. Or to begin at the beginning and bring the story forward. Or jump around from year to year with flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Again, that’s your prerogative.

You might write letters to your kids with the merriest of hearts, brimming with love and understanding and compassion and even wisdom. Or, on the other hand, you might prefer to look back on your life in anger, unleashing all the bile and bitterness at your command. Or both. Or neither.

To thine own self be true, and all that.

Here’s my point: you’re going to have to do this on your own. That’s just a fact. And what that means is that you’ll have to find the approach that best suits you.

If you’re feeling French today, please feel free to call this strategy laissez faire (“a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action,” says definition).

Still, I’m going to take a crack at being of service to you here. It’s kind of my job, really. So over the next few days, I’ll be posting some advice about writing letters to your kids – a six-part series that shares my top 10 tips. Call it a starter kit if you like, a do-it-yourself kind of deal. How to decide what to write. How to find the time. How to do justice to your memories.

Please regard these tips as nothing more than guidelines, meant only to make this easier going for you. My aim is simple: to help you – at least any of you who night need a little help – to get going in the right direction.

Again, this is your life we’re talking about. You know your life better than anyone else — it’s your turf; you can rightly claim absolute sovereignty – and you get to tell your story as you please. You’re the true authority, the last word here, so you get final cut.

So go with your gut. That’s my only real edict. Do what comes naturally. Soon enough you’ll get into a groove.

And if you’re lucky, you might even find your true voice. A voice your children will hear loud and clear and cherish for the ages.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

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Letters to My Kids 101: Part 2

Here, then – in brief for now, with further details to come in the week ahead – are my top 10 tips for writing letters to your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. No, really. Decide wholeheartedly. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s square one.

2. Plan It Out. Do at least an outline. Even Shakespeare needed a blueprint. Call it a GPS for the flow of your thoughts.

3. Vote For Reality. Kids can smell spin from a mile away. So opt for the truth about yourself and your family, however much it might hurt you to do so.

4. Single Out The Highlights. Draw only from the richest memories, the most lasting moments, at your command. Forgo trivia and the otherwise mundane.

5. Stick To A Schedule. A little regularity never hurt anyone. A half hour or so once a week is probably realistic – better still, shoot for a set time on a set day.

6. Keep It Spontaneous. First thought, best thought, poet Allen Ginsberg famously said. Theoretically, then, you’ll bring yourself within flirting distance of the genuine.

7. Briefer Is Better. It’s the soul of wit, no? Enough said.

8. Tell A Story. Each entry will ideally have a real narrative, how this happened, then that happened – in short, a beginning, a middle and an end. Maybe even a point or two as well.

9. Make Every Word Count. Your readers will, in a sense, be keeping score. So why waste any time?

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. We all have stories to tell. We’re all storytellers at heart. Period.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 3

Here, in further detail than I gave in my top-10 list yesterday, are the first three tips on how to write letters to your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. If you really mean to do it, chances are you will. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition as far as I’m concerned. So you might treat the idea the same as you would getting married or quitting cigarettes. In my opinion, anyone half-hearted should sit this dance out. Here’s a little trick I used long ago when wondering whether I should marry my then girlfriend, Elvira. I asked myself every day, “Should I marry her?” I asked myself the same question for at least 25, 30 days in a row, and every day got the same answer. Day after day my answer came back as a “yes.” That self-survey helped me decide. We’re now married 33 years.

2. Plan It Out. Before I jotted down a single word, I daydreamed for weeks about what I might write. I went onto our terrace and stared at the sky until my memory opened its gates, letting images and fragments of dialogue pour through. Memory is a muscle, and I gave mine a workout. Then I took shorthand – “gleaned my teeming brain,” as John Keats wrote. “Caroline singing for Nanna,” one note said. “Michael going out late at night,” said another. All my recollections struck me as fair game: births, deaths and anything in between. My notes ran longer than expected or needed, pretty much the kitchen sink. But ultimately they served as cues and clues to the stories that came. So please, muse away. Disclaimer: You may prefer simply to cut loose in your journals, going with whatever comes to mind, without planning at all. Hey, it’s still a free country.

3. Vote For Reality. I’m big on facts. Often I like facts better than I do opinions. Facts are presumably verifiable and certainly more believable. My son Michael and I sometimes butt heads. That’s a fact. My daughter Caroline sometimes resists my advice. That’s a fact, too. All of us occasionally feel tempted to rewrite history, to paint the past only with bright, sunny colors. But kids have an inherently keen sense of truth. Whatever you say, they will find you out. So you might as well keep it real.

P.S. – Part 4 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 4

Here, elaborating on my top-10 list, are two more tips on how to write letters to your kids:

4. Single Out The Highlights. I could have written about anything. But I knew I would be better off writing about something. And better still, something particular. Something, if possible, singular. In short, I looked to tell the story that is mine and mine alone to tell. So I sifted through all my notes for promising prospects, the better to set some priorities. I felt the urge to zero in on memories that resonated as somehow special, on experiences that mattered, that meant something – to seize, above all, on moments. The momentous, even if only quietly so. It might be a single action or comment or an incident or a series of episodes – the day Michael first beat me in a sprint, the warm summer morning I held Caroline in my arms in the pool at our beach club. For me, it had to be specific. It had to be tangible. It had to be revealing — a moment of understanding and discovery, perhaps even a revelation. I scrounged, too, for anecdotes that might get at something larger – how, for example, a father might welcome his son surpassing him physically and the implications thereof. Disclaimer:You have the right to remain arbitrary in your approach. You may have more fun being freewheeling. This is supposed to be a pastime rather than a job.

5. Stick To A Schedule. Every Saturday or Sunday morning before breakfast, in the chair in our bedroom, I logged an entry in my journals. That’s what worked for me. Same time, same place, day in and day out. It keep the commitment doable, and so I easily found the time and energy needed. The pieces came fast, each materializing in an hour or less, and soon my pace acclerated. In a year, I racked up 50 little stories – in two, 100. Disclaimer: Do your stuff any time the mood strikes you. Going by clockwork or lockstep, or imposing any kind of discipline or organization on yourself, may well be all wrong for you. I respect that. Nobody needs to be a robot about it. So vary the days and hours and locations if that rings your chimes. The overarching idea here is to get it done — nothing more, nothing less. After all, your kids are waiting for the news you’re about to deliver.

P.S. – Part 5 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 5

Here, to flesh out my top-10 list, are two more tips on how to write letters to your kids:

6. Keep It Spontaneous. I know: this tip directly contradicts tip # 2 (Plan It Out). Let me explain: I planned the journals precisely so I could then be spontaneous. If you start with a sense of the general direction to take, then you no longer need to worry too much about coming up empty or the course to follow. So I wrote with absolute spontaneity, my operating principle to shoot straight from the hip, going with pretty much whatever I felt the impulse to say. I changed nothing, crossed out nothing, added nothing after the fact – no second-guessing, nothing off-limits, everything done on the first take. If I veered off-topic, so much the better. I went what Robin Williams, in describing peak experiences in standup comedy, once called “full-tilt bozo.” You may find it takes you some place holy. Disclaimer: You might prefer to sweat over every sentence. Be my guest. Who am I to suggest you do otherwise?

7. Briefer Is Better. Most of my journal entries ran about 400 words (a little longer than this post today). I’ve always liked writing that’s more suggestive than expansive – writing that’s implicit, allusive, understated, elliptical. It seems to me infinitely more dramatic to leave more between the lines than you put in the lines themselves – to say what you have to say without quite coming right out and saying it. I also believe in letting facts speak for themselves. Facts tend to be eloquent. Let those facts accrue, telling your story for you, the less explanation, the better. The trick is to leave out whatever you can leave out without actually appearing to have left anything out. Kids, like adults, know how to fill in the blanks. Trust me on that. Disclaimer: Ramble willy-nilly from one non sequitur to the next without any prayer of coherence for all I care. Digress about wallpaper. No need to take my word about anything. I just work here.

P.S. – Part 6 (the final installment) will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 6

My final 10 top tips — or is it 12? — for writing letters to your kids.

8. Tell A Story. You know what I’m talking about. Your toddler is venturing his first steps. Right away we wonder what will happen next. Your toddler wobbles, keels over and cries. Will he get up? The suspense is killing us. We’re rooting for the kid now. We’re sure he’s going to prevail through this setback. In doing my journals, I looked for memories that offered an issue, a conflict, a turning point, a decision. Michael kept getting ear infections, for example. Caroline worried about Michael going out late at night. I looked, too, for signs of growth, of a change in character, of a coming to terms. Then I might – might, mind you – interpret the events just described and to translate it all into some kind of insight. Might try to characterize it somehow, bringing a fragment to fruition. As in: “Only then did I realize . . . ” I’ve always put stock in the idea that it’s less a matter of what you know than what you make of what you know. Disclaimer: You could get all experimental and surreal about it, without even getting your creative license renewed first. That’s cool. We’re all artists at heart, man.

9. Make Every Word Count. See # 7 (Briefer Is Better). I’m such a stickler about this philosophy I’m putting it here twice. Ever sentence should advance the overall cause. Nobody expects you to capture every single detail – only the right details, the ones absolutely essential. Nail those details.

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. I know it sounds like lip service, so let me clarify here. Everyone has stories to tell. That’s the truth. You’ve probably told plenty of stories yourself, perhaps even told those stories well. Every life has its drama. And nobody knows your story better than you. Writing is different from talking, of course. You have to get your story on the page. That means parking yourself in a chair. It takes a little more time and a lot more patience. Do you have to be a writer? No. You can do it anyway. You might even do it better, less self-consciously, free of pretense. It comes down to harnessing a certain power we all have within us. But you’ll find the motivation. After all, you’re doing it for your kids.

Now, for some bonus tips:

. Give Yourself A Hand. I wrote the journals by hand. The handwritten comes across as far more personal than anything typed – more organic, more authentic. The written word has a primal quality that harks back to the stories told on cave walls.

12. Keep Secrets. I kept the journals a secret from my kids. I wanted to spring the gifts as a surprise at Christmas. Keeping a lid on the news made the project so much more fun for me. I went at my handiwork with a sense of anticipation bordering on the giddy.

P.S. – So what do you think? Any advice I left out? Ready to take action?

P.S.S. – Just a reminder here: I invite all of you to contribute a guest blog, “Why I Took The Pledge” – a short essay about what you plan to tell your kids in 2011, along with your bio and a family photo. To volunteer, just e-mail me at bobbrody@hotmail.com.

P.S.S.S – Our regularly scheduled programming resumes tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013

People_writing_letters_photo

Let’s say, with the new year now here, you’re ready to make the big leap. You’re finally going to write about your personal family history for your children.

Good for you. Still, you might be asking yourself some questions about how to go about it.

Where should I start?

Should I go chronologically or jump around in time?

How do I say to my kids what I want to say?

How can I make it memorable?

Well, all I can tell you is how I went at it. I devoted two years to keeping journals for both our kids, compiling more than 100 vignettes.

So let me start with this advice: Go at it more or less however you wish. After all, I’m me and you’re you.

You might write letters to your kids with the merriest of hearts, brimming with love and understanding. Or you might prefer to look back on your life in anger, unleashing all the bile and bitterness at your command. Or both. Or neither.

Again, that’s your prerogative. To thine own self be true, and all that.

My point is this: you’re going to have to do this on your own. You’ll have to find an approach that best suits you.

Please feel to call this strategy laissez faire (“a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action”).

Still, I’m going to try to be of some service to you here. So over the next five days, I’ll be posting tips about getting personal and writing about family history for your kids. How to decide what to write. How to find the time. How to do justice to your memories.

These tips as intended only as guidelines rather than some kind of guaranteed formula. My aim is simply to help you to get going in the right direction.

Remember, this is your life we’re talking about. And you know your life better than anyone else. It’s your turf, so you get to claim absolute sovereignty. You’re entitled to tell your story as you please.

So go with your gut. Do what comes naturally. Those are my only real edicts. Soon enough you’ll get into a groove.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll find your true voice. A voice your children will hear loud and clear and cherish for the ages.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 2)

People_writing_letters_photo_2

Here, then – in brief for now, with further details to come in the days ahead – are my all-time top 10 tips for writing about personal family history for your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. No, really. Decide wholeheartedly. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s square one.

2. Plan It Out. Do at least an outline. Even Shakespeare needed a blueprint. Call it a GPS for the flow of your thoughts.

3. Vote For Reality. Kids can smell spin from a mile away. So opt for the truth about yourself and your family, however much it might hurt you to do so.

4. Single Out The Highlights. Draw only from the richest memories, the most lasting moments, at your command. Forgo trivia and the otherwise mundane.

5. Stick To A Schedule. A little regularity never hurt anyone. A half hour or so once a week is probably realistic – better still, shoot for a set time on a set day.

6. Keep It Spontaneous. First thought, best thought, poet Allen Ginsberg famously said. Theoretically, then, you’ll bring yourself within flirting distance of the genuine.

7. Briefer Is Better. It’s the soul of wit, no? Enough said.

8. Tell A Story. Each entry will ideally have a real narrative, how this happened, then that happened – in short, a beginning, a middle and an end. Maybe even a point or two as well.

9. Make Every Word Count. Your readers will, in a sense, be keeping score. So why waste any time?

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. We all have stories to tell, professional writers and amateurs alike. We’re all storytellers at heart. Period.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 3)

People_writing_letters_photo_3
Here, in further detail, are the first four tips on how to write about your personal family history for your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. If you really mean to do it, chances are you will. So you might treat the idea the same as you would getting married or quitting cigarettes. Here’s a little trick I used long ago when wondering whether I should marry my then girlfriend, Elvira. I asked myself every day, “Should I marry her?” I asked the same question for at least 25 days in a row. And day after day my answer came back as a “yes.” That self-survey helped me decide. We’re now married 33 years.

2. Plan It Out. Before I jotted a single word, I daydreamed for weeks about what I might write. I opened the gates to my memory until images and fragments of dialogue poured through. Then I took notes – “gleaned my teeming brain,” as John Keats famously wrote. “Caroline singing for Nanna,” one note said. My notes amounted pretty much to the kitchen sink. But ultimately they served as cues and clues to the stories that came. So please, muse away. Disclaimer:You may prefer simply to cut loose with whatever comes to mind. Hey, it’s still a free country.

3. Vote For Reality. I’m big on facts. Facts are presumably verifiable and certainly more believable. My son Michael and I sometimes butt heads. That’s a fact. My daughter Caroline sometimes resists my advice. That’s a fact, too. All of us occasionally feel tempted to rewrite history, to paint the past only with bright, sunny colors. But kids have an inherently keen sense of truth. So you might as well keep it real.

4. Single Out Highlights. I could have written about anything. But I knew I would be better off writing about something particular — something, if possible, singular. A story that is mine and mine alone to tell. So I sifted through all my notes and set priorities. I decided to zero in on memories that resonated as special, that mattered, that meant something. And to seize, above all, on moments, the truly momentous. It might be a single action or comment or incident. It had to be specific, tangible, revealing – a moment of understanding and discovery, perhaps a revelation. Disclaimer:You retain the right to be arbitrary, even freewheeling. This is supposed to be a pastime rather than a job.

P.S. – Part 4 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 4)

People_writing_letters_photo_4

Here are three more tips on how to write family history for your kids:

4. Stick To A Schedule. Every Saturday or Sunday morning, I logged an entry in my journals. Same time, same place, day in and day out. It keep the commitment doable, and so I easily found the time and energy needed. That’s what worked for me. Disclaimer: Do your stuff any time the mood strikes you. The overarching idea here is to get it done. After all, your kids are waiting for your news.

5. Keep It Spontaneous. I know: this tip contradicts tip # 2 (Plan It Out). Let me explain: I planned my journals precisely so I could then be spontaneous. If you start with a general direction to take, you no longer need to worry about the course to follow. So I went with pretty much whatever I felt the impulse to say. I changed nothing, crossed out nothing, added nothing after the fact – no second-guessing, everything done on the first take. Robin Williams once described peak experiences in standup comedy as going “full-tilt bozo.”

6. Briefer Is Better. Most of my journal entries ran about 400 words (this post clocks in at 320). I’ve often favored writing that’s more suggestive than expansive – writing that’s understated, implicit, allusive, elliptical. It seems to me sometimes more dramatic to leave something between the lines – to say what you have to say without always coming right out and saying it. Let the facts speak for themselves. Facts tend to be eloquent. Let those facts accrue, telling your story for you, the less explanation, the better. The trick is to leave out whatever you can leave out without actually appearing to have left anything out. Kids, like adults, know how to fill in the blanks. Disclaimer: Ramble from one non sequitur to the next without any prayer of coherence for all I care. I just work here.

P.S. – Part 5 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 5)

People_writing_letters_photo_5

Here are more tips on how to write personal family history for your kids:

8. Tell A Story. Your toddler is venturing his first steps, wobbling, about to keel over. Right away we wonder what will happen next. Will he make it across the room? The suspense is killing us. We’re rooting for the kid now. In doing my journals, I sometimes looked for an issue, a conflict, a turning point, a decision. Michael kept getting ear infections, for example. I looked, too, for signs of growth, of a change in character, of a coming to terms. Then I might try to translate events into some kind of insight. As in: “Only then did I realize . . . ” I’ve always believed that what counts is less a matter of what you know than what you make of what you know.

9. Make Every Word Count. See # 7 (Briefer Is Better). This philosophy is worth underscoring twice. Ever sentence should advance the overall cause. Nobody expects you to nail every single detail – only the right ones, the ones that are essential.

10. Anyone Can Write. I know that sounds like lip service, so let me clarify. Everyone has stories to tell. Every life has its drama. All of us are inherently more interesting than we probably realize. And nobody knows your story better than you. Do you have to be a writer? No. It comes down to harnessing the memories we all have within us to honor our heritages.

Now for two bonus tips, free of charge:

11. Lend Yourself A Hand. I wrote the journals by hand. The handwritten comes across as more personal than anything typed – more organic, more authentic. Words written carry a primal quality that harks back to stories told on cave walls.

12. Keep Secrets. I gave my kids the journals as surprise Christmas gifts. Keeping a lid on the news made the project much more fun for me.

P.S. – So what do you think? Ready to take action?