Memory builder: How putting together your own story helps

From memoir to scrapbooks, documenting your life story is an enriching creative process that has many profound benefits for you and for the people with whom you share it. The process involves memory, creativity and organization-all good for your brain. It also provides valuable insights on what you have accomplished in your life.

“Sometimes people think they haven’t done much,” says Erica Curtis, board-certified art therapist and instructor for the UCLA Arts and Healing Social Emotional Arts (SEA) certificate program. “But when they start to tell their stories, it puts experiences in perspective. It’s a very affirming process to look back and helps people find meaning and value in their lives.”

Telling your stories can also create closer relationships. The elderly aren’t always given respect for having lived a full life, says Curtis. This can be especially true in assisted living and long-term care facilities, where the relationship between caregiver and resident can be rather perfunctory and detached. Sharing life stories can create warmth and understanding.

How to kick-start your creative process

It can be rather intimidating to document an entire life. Instead, think about documenting particular times and special moments of your life. A good place to start is with questions your children or grandchildren ask you. These questions can also spark a starting point:

* What was your childhood like?

Describe a favorite game, or your neighborhood.

* What did you do as a teenager?

Share school experiences such as classes, sports you played.

* What kinds of pets did you have?

Describe names and adventures with your pet.

* How did your spouse propose marriage? Provide details on your honeymoon.

Some people choose to document their work life, creating a flow of interesting travels, projects and experiences related to their jobs; others may choose to tell about major events, such as emigrating to America. It really is up to you what and how much to tell.

“Some older adults have lost some control and choice in their lives,” explains Curtis, “and this helps them exercise choice in their world.”

Creating your story in words, pictures and other art forms

Memoir is a classic method by which to tell a life story. There are many books and online resources that can help you write your story. What it comes down to is telling your truth and providing details of what it was like to live at a particular time. The details matter and will add interest as well as context to those who read it. For example, the price of gas and type of car you had growing up, communications in the non-computer age and living through major historical events, such as the Great Depression.

Collages are another way to assemble a life story. Thumb through magazines and tear out images that inspire you. Once you have a pile, you can assemble them onto a sheet of paper, add your own photos, and memorabilia as well as drawings, doodles and captions. Make it fun and use what inspires you, be it glitter glue, gold stars or ribbons.

Other ways to document the events of your life can be through quilts, paintings, audio or video recordings. Search online for the year you were born, and look at the images. Chances are many memories will rush back into your mind. Our memories are very connected to images and images help our brains remember.

Be aware and ready for emotions

Documenting the events of your life is an emotional process. The reflections can bring up feelings of joy, regret and sadness. It’s normal, healthy and perfectly OK to have these feelings. If difficult emotions and unresolved matters linger, talk with a family member, friend or a health care professional.

“Pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” says Curtis. “Suffering occurs when we judge the emotion as bad or think we shouldn’t feel a particular way.”

Assembling the narrative of your life can also be a collaborative project done with a friend or loved one. Many community centers, including the UCLA arts and healing, offer memoir and collage classes. You can also work directly with an art therapist to glean greater insights on your life.

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