What else happened after each of these main events? What was important to you at this time? Did you have any special friends? A pet? A romantic partner? A spouse? What specific event will best show the relationship you had with this person or animal? Was the best friend who helped you through a difficult time a kind and gentle soul? What single act of kindness most stands out when you think of this person? Write about that. What actions and dialogue can you relate in concrete detail to help readers understand that relationship and its importance?
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
Was your aim to succeed as a businessperson? To be the best parent you could be? To amass wealth? To become a musician? To find love or security? Whatever your goal, think of it as the unifying thread that drives your life, shows the failures and complications you overcame, and demonstrates how you ultimately achieved some form of success as the person you are today.
It’s possible that writing your life story could be therapeutic, offering closure on some not so bright spots of your personal history along with emotional and psychological healing. Maybe your life was just a circus act from the beginning and is funny. If writing your life story touches you while you are writing it, think about all the people you can touch when they read it.
If you graduated from high school despite struggling with dyslexia, you may have a powerful story about perseverance. If you became hugely successful in your career, perhaps your story is rooted in diligence with a dash of luck. While researching this idea in the course of writing the book Writing Your Legacy (WD Books), Richard Campbell and co-author Cheryl Svensson focused on the concept of life themes, developed by the father of gerontology James E. Birren. In the January 2017 Writer’s Digest, Campbell explains why the 10 core legacy themes are an essential piece in puzzling together your memoir. Below, he breaks down each element and poses questions sure to prompt a personal response from writers.
1. “Declare yourself” to your colleagues at work. Doug Conant, the much-admired former CEO of Campbell Soup and founder of Conant Leadership (and one of my favorite people), is an introvert who’s not inclined to schmooze and self-disclose. So he scheduled “Declare Yourself” meetings, one at a time, with each of his direct reports. The purpose of these meetings was to tell his employees his story: how he liked to work, his management philosophy, and the things and people that mattered to him most. (We at Quiet Revolution are partnering with Conant Leadership to develop a “Declare Yourself” tool that you can use with your colleagues. Stay tuned on that.)
Outline the inciting incident and the ending incident. Often, writers have a difficult time to determining how to start a story. A memoir can be even more challenging as you might feel you have so many details and scenes you could start with or that feel important. One way to start is to identify the inciting incident in your story and the ending incident. You will need to dramatize your inciting incident and your ending incident in your book.
We told you how to start. When you get through that point, it will be easier to continue. You will follow the plan and you’ll keep developing it. At one moment, you may even notice that the words are pouring themselves out. You’re finally expressing the things you’ve been carrying inside for so long. That may be a torturing process, but it’s also liberating in a strange way.
Do you remember any other challenges you had to overcome that relate to each main point in the story? Did you move? Were you ill? Did anyone close to you die? Did any of these people or events affect the choices you made during that stage of your life? Do you remember any amusing or embarrassing incidents related to this success or failure? What high points and low points do you recall? Was a specific holiday or celebration memorable? A specific meal or car ride?
Not necessarily a writer, but still want to record your story somehow? Don’t think that there’s no hope for you. Consider making audio or video recordings. Audio recordings can be especially helpful. You can take audio recordings to a writer/transcriptionist who can then type out your story in a logical order. Working closely with a writer as you verbally record your stories can be an alternative when you feel you are too close to the story.
Writing an autobiography for a high school or a college English class can help you gain a deeper sense of personal identity. An autobiography allows you to tell your story in a way that reveals truths about your values, goals and dreams. Though there's no exact science to writing an autobiography, you should include information about your background, major events that shaped who you are and any core themes in your life. Include specific examples to help readers understand your life history.