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.
The childhood story. Whether your childhood was happy or traumatic, you should include a few anecdotes that give a picture of who you were and what you experienced at the time. You can tell the story of your childhood by breaking it down into smaller anecdotes that illustrate your personality - your parents' reaction when you brought home a stray dog, the time you climbed out of the window at school and ran away for 3 days, your friendly relationship with a homeless person living in the woods . . . get creative.
I have lead a very full and sometimes complicated life. I have worked in many different vocations and participated in most all of the arts. I have been ask probably 100s of times why I don’t write a book about my life and or experiences. I realize that aspects of my life are things that should maybe written down for prosperity, but when I begin to think about what to write about, or what area to write about, I am bewildered. To fully write my life would take me volumes of words. I can remember from the age of two until now and yesterday I turned 76. At times I think of things that I think are important, but then other times I think of dozens of things are important. Many of my learned friends call “The Renaissance Man”. I am at a loss.
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?
Take a step back to reflect. You're chronicling your life lessons, but what have you learned from them? Relay your intentions, desires, feelings of loss, feelings of joy, the wisdom you've gained, and other inner thoughts from time to time throughout the book. Taking a step back from the action of the story to reflect on what it all means is a good way to add depth to your autobiography.
Incorporate dialogue into your autobiography to make it more personal, recommends history professor Robert Gerlich at Loyola University in New Orleans. Consider including humor when it's appropriate. For example, if you're writing about how you got lost at Disneyland when you were 10 years old and how the experience helped you learn to face obstacles, problem solve and overcome your fears, you might write, "The attendant at Splash Mountain said, 'Are you OK? Did you get separated from your family?' I quickly replied with as much bravado as I could muster, 'Nah, I'm fine. My eyes are just wet from the ride.' I didn't want her to know I was crying."