Everybody has a story that matters. Writing your life story creates a legacy for your loved ones and for future generations. It is also a way of examining your life a little deeper. Writing your story will help you recognise that you have lived a meaningful life and made a positive contribution to the world.
A well-lived life includes a wealth of stories, experiences and memories. Writing these down can bring enjoyment, satisfaction, healing and a sense of closure. Writing about your life will allow you to see the uniqueness in the life that you have lived and it will make you aware of the life lessons and universal truths contained within your unique life story that are worth sharing with others. But where do you start?
I’ve just finished delivering a series of six workshops teaching rural community members how to write their life stories. It’s by far one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. The workshops were originally offered to senior citizens, but I had plenty of participants younger than me. Clearly many people are longing to write their life stories but where to start is often the problem.
In this post I share some of the main points that came up in these workshops to make it easier for you to start writing your life story.
Firstly, what is the difference between memoir and autobiography?
When I told a friend that I am writing a memoir he looked at me like I am nuts. I could literally see what he was thinking: you are not famous. Who do you think would be interested in your memoir?
Famous people write autobiographies, I told him. Ordinary people write memoir and it happens to be one of the most popular genres at the moment. An autobiography chronicles a person’s entire life story, from childhood to the present. A memoir, by contrast, is about a life event that has profoundly changed the writer and carries a universal lesson.
As memoir coach Marion Roach Smith puts it, it’s not what you did in your life but what you did with it that makes for an interesting story.
The best memoirs are often stories about adversity overcome and how that has made the writer grow and find deeper meaning in life that has universality.
A good memoir is written as narrative non-fiction, which simply means it’s a true story (non-fiction) written like a novel adhering to narrative conventions of plot, clear story line that builds to a climax and follows a story arc. The people you write about in a memoir become characters and are developed like characters in a novel would be, ie. through narrative (description) intermixed with scenes (action and dialogue anchored in place and time).
In a memoir, unlike in an autobiography, you include only the stories and experiences that are directly relevant to the book’s message and central question.
Writing your life story doesn’t have to be this complicated, but do try to write it with the reader in mind. Tell your story in a way that will allow your reader to emotionally relate to your story and to identify with you, the protagonist.
Start writing your life story by breaking it down into stepping stones & turning points
Writing your entire life story can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
Don’t sit down to write your whole life story in one go, start to finish. That will feel overwhelming and will most definitely put you off. Break it up into small anecdotes and individual memories, then sit down to write that anecdote or that particular memory as an event.
You don’t have to remember every event in your life, that would also be impossible. Focus on the key events that brought you to where you are today. Start writing your story by remembering the life-changing moments that have shaped you.
Identify the key events that changed your life for better or for worse. These can be positive events such as getting married, the birth of your children, graduating from university, creating a business. And they will also include big and tragic events such as the loss of a loved one, migrating to a new country or surviving an illness. They can also be smaller but no less tragic events, ie. a high school teacher telling you that you are not clever enough to go to university.
Simply begin with a brainstorm, writing down 10-15 stepping stone moments.
To start writing your life story, focus on the turning points in your life
As well as considering the life-changing moments in your life, you need to think about the major turning points in your life. The thresholds in our personal narratives are the entry points into your story. They are the major dramatic beats that signal transformation, radical change and growth.
The most fascinating stories are often about the ways we have overcome life’s obstacles and how we have transformed and created new meaning for ourselves.
What obstacles have you overcome in your life and what did you learn from that experience? These lessons may just be the core of your story that everything else moves around.
Making a list of the major turning points in your life will help you find the structure of your story.
Adding detail and finding your theme
Write the stepping stone and turning point events out like a scene in a book. Add dialogue, description, vivid detail and conflict. Bring your writing alive with sensory detail. What could you see, touch, hear, touch, test and smell? Engage your reader emotionally. What was the dominant emotion at a particular life event?
As you keep writing and collecting memories and key life events, you will start to see themes, patterns and questions.
Storytelling is all about asking a question. As the playwright Eugene Ionesco said: “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”
Most stories revolve around a single question that represents the core of the story. Will Romeo and Juliet end up together? Will Harry Potter defeat Voldemort? Will Frodo destroy the Ring?
Perhaps the underlying theme of your life story is about finding happiness despite the odds and your question is, what does it take to create a happy life?
Remembering the details
All of our writing comes from memory.
Memories are, by definition, subjective. Every time we recall a memory, we recreate it, we embellish it or expand on it. In other words, we are being creative.
Let me give you permission right now to be creative with your life story! Don’t worry, nobody expects you to remember exactly what you said as a 12-year old or even as a 45-year old.
Here are a few ideas to help you remember as many details as you can for writing your life story:
Photographs are great memory triggers. You can use them as writing prompts and to recall forgotten details.
Pick a photo from a meaningful event and write about the people in the photo and the occasion it was taken. What feelings do you associate with the photo? Explore the memories that come up.
Old letters will help you find your voice.
Over time the way we speak changes. See if you can dig up old letters (or emails) or even diaries and discover the ways you spoke and thought in the past and the stories they contain.
What were the news headlines on your wedding day or your first day of school?
You can access old news content online (get a younger member of the family to help you if necessary), or maybe you can dig up clippings of old newspaper articles from an important event in your life that you have kept? This will provide historical context and also help you to unlock specific memories and feelings.
My favorite writing prompts to help you start writing your life story
To dig up your unique memory of a specific event ie. your first kiss, your wedding day, your first trip overseas we need to tap into our ‘episodic memory’, which is stored in our long-term memory.
A great way to do that is to use writing prompts and to write to a timer. 10 minutes is a good length.
I am a big fan of timed writing prompts because freewriting in this way allows you to bypass the inner critic who always sits on our shoulder telling us that our writing is no good.
Here are 4 quick and simple writing prompts to help you write your life story:
This prompt helps to unlock the stories you really want to tell and it jogs your memory to recall forgotten details and to find the stepping stones and turning points in your life.
The prompt is inspired by Joe Brainard’s autobiography, I remember (1970), depicting his childhood in the 1940s and ’50s in Oklahoma as well as his life in the ‘60s and ’70s in New York City. The book, which became a literary and artistic cult classic, is written in sentence form, all of which start with the words “I remember.” Sounds almost too simple, but it’s a great read!
Set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes and write without stopping to think or edit.
Brainstorm as many memories as you can, starting each new sentence with the words “I remember…”
I DON’T REMEMBER…
This prompt invites us to fill in the blanks. In Natalie Goldberg’s words, it makes us explore the underbelly of the mind. Let’s try to get to what lurks in the depth of our memories, what remains hidden, what we fail to notice or what we actively banish from our minds.
You’ve got infinite possibility with this prompt. Your hidden memories can be positive or negative. It’s whatever comes up. You may end up writing for 10 minutes about the things you don’t remember about the primary school you attended, the things you wish you could remember; or you may write a list related to things you CAN remember — the little details within your memories that you’ve forgotten. Be specific and give sensory detail.
THE FIRST TIME
Make a list of ten random memories of when you did something for the first time.
My first day in a foreign country, my first day of marriage, my first kiss, my first day at work, my first day as a parent, my first bicycle, the first time I ate sushi, the first time I went to the cinema on my own…simply brainstorm, write quickly and capture whatever comes up.
Then choose one FIRST and write for 10 minutes. Be specific. Give details. Was the bicycle you rode to school red or blue? Did it rain on your first day at work? What did you eat for lunch on your first day as a mother? You never know what will happen when you allow the pen to lead the way.
What will engage a reader in a novel are the moral values that drive a character. A strong storyline is about conflict and challenge and how a character reacts when core values are being tested. The same goes for writing your life story.
Write “I believe …” at the top of a blank page and then find 5-10 different ways to complete it. Write without stopping to think, without giving the logical mind a chance. Stay with your intuitive mind.
Then choose one of your “I believe” statements and write it at the top of a fresh page. Explore your “I believe” statement from every possible angle.
Would you consider writing down your life story? Are you already doing so? Let me know in the comments and, please, share this with anyone you think will enjoy writing their own life story.