There are three phases in our lives: youth, middle age, and you-look-great! I’m in the third phase. Maybe you are, too.
This third phase, at 85, has earned me tenure in an institution I now recognize as old age. Thus I can render free advice. Freely. “Old people like to give good advice, as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples” (La Rochefoucauld). But I can also supply a good example: writing my memoir.
My dwindling memory and declining energy reserves — plus a stroke — scared me into writing a chronicle. I wanted my children and grandchildren to know things about me that they didn’t already know, before I myself forgot them.
So I researched other people’s memoirs: I examined the narratives of friends and contemporaries who were writing their life stories. I also availed myself of an assortment of memoir advisers, seminars, and support groups. Maybe they could help me capture good news about myself I could share. Woody Allen wanted to achieve immortality, not through his work, but by not dying. I wanted to achieve immortality through my memoir.
Writing a memoir was not something that came naturally; it was more like building my first treehouse and my second marriage. I had to struggle to learn how to “measure twice, cut once.”
I disciplined myself to reflect on what was important in my life and thereby what to exclude and include. This soul-searching revealed how essential my father and mother, friends, work, and mentors were in forming who I became. I discovered that each of us has three unequal parts: the part that’s one’s father, the part that’s one’s mother, and the part that’s neither.
The women in my memoir support group treated me as if I were their equal. We would read our works in progress and then listen to polite or savage critiques of our efforts. Very few facts are both true and interesting, yet I was able to learn what was fascinating in people’s lives.
Enter an informal group of friends who were eager to listen attentively. We lightheartedly called ourselves “The Memoir Consortium.”
David Z. Robinson and I had been friends for almost 50 years. Dave, a splendid Dutch uncle and considerate big brother, is modest about his very impressive accomplishments. With a brilliant career in public policy, a well-lived life, a warm personality, and a lively wit, he is admirable to all who know him, from every angle — a “spherical mensch.”
A born storyteller, Dave enchanted us with accounts of his role in the Cuban missile crisis, the hotline between Moscow and Washington, chimps and monkeys in space, nuclear particle accelerators, presidential politics, and other tantalizing morsels. His provocative recollections sparked freewheeling table talk and camaraderie.
Yet despite his distinguished career and intellectual bandwidth, David was reluctant to write his memoir, insisting he had no sitzfleisch (chair glue) to write his life story. He insisted that I had to lay bare my own life before he would lay bare his. Pointing at me during lunch with friends, he later declared, “I wouldn’t have done any memoir writing if it hadn’t been for this guy. Inspired by Steve’s energy and persistence, my memoir really snowballed.”
My irrational exuberance and my memoir’s personal revelations finally overwhelmed his resistance and convinced him to do what I had done, but with the help of audio technology.
Our group met every few months, audiotaping hours at a time in our homes. We became invested in Dave’s mesmerizing memories and his natural joie de vivre. He told us with a polite, faintly ironic smile that when he listened to his stories on tape and typed them into his computer, he was able to clarify his spoken ideas, add forgotten material, and, as he said, “make myself look a little bit better.”
This isn’t necessary; his colorful career stories are splendid without such grace notes. As Kierkegaard said, “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”
Our consortium friendship has flourished. Over the years my mentor has enriched my life and inspired me to become a better person. An immense bonus has been my family members’ replication of our consortium model of an ongoing oral history. Because we taped Dave’s memoirs before a small, intimate audience, my family now tapes our own intimate memories. I can just imagine our great-grandchildren eavesdropping on the family stories that bind us. The “me” in memoir and the “me” in mentor live very well together.
Dave has also been helping his friends write their memoirs. So my good deed for my mentor became his good deed for his companions, for me, and for others. Even though I mentored my mentor, at age 85 I still need a mentor: my brilliant 92-year-old big brother.
Stephen Rosen, a regular contributor, lives in East Hampton and New York. His memoir is “Youth, Middle-Age, and You-Look-Great!”