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What to write: Choose one or more of the sentences below and write a page or two that begins with that particular sentence. Don’t worry about bringing up material that you are afraid might be too painful to explore, says Temes. “Please don’t bother with grammar or spelling or punctuation issues. “Just write for yourself and for your clarity of mind.”
That’s it. Writing these ten themes will result in a concise story that covers all essential aspects of a life well lived. For added context to your story, Writing Your Legacy offers 25 additional themes, including those on your life values, greatest personal achievements, your cultural heritage, life after retirement, and life miracles. It can be your New Year’s Resolution to create the perfect gift to your children or grandchildren. For free downloads, try www.guidedlifestories.com.
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?
Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens by chance or by means of luck. Illness, injury, love, lost moments of true greatness, and sheer stupidity all occur to test the limits of your soul. Without these small tests, whatever they may be, life would be like a smoothly paved, straight, flat road to nowhere. It would be safe and comfortable, but dull and utterly pointless.
Identify your narrator’s desire line. In your memoir, your narrator is you. You will use the first person, “I”, to lead the reader through your story. But it’s important to focus your memoir on specific need or desire. Your want will drive the food forward and make your story worth reading. Think about your desire line, or what motivates your narrator to tell her story. Your narrator will then struggle to achieve her desire line through telling her story and reaching a realization about a pivotal moment in her story.
It was only when Sophie’s husband accused her of giving birth to another man’s baby that she went for paternity tests and discovered that her husband was right (sort of). The baby, then aged 10, wasn’t his, but she wasn’t Sophie’s either. She belonged to another set of parents, who had been raising Sophie’s biological daughter in a town several miles away.
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.
What were the narrator’s desires in the memoir? What was motivating the narrator to share this particular story with the reader? Often, memoirs can be cathartic for the writer. Perhaps the writer was trying to process a year of grieving and loss, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, or perhaps the writer was trying to describe a childhood in a concentration camp, as Spiegelman does in his memoir Maus. Consider the motivations of the writer for putting down their story and presenting it to readers.
If the project becomes too much for you at any point, remember that writing an autobiography takes time. Take the pressure off. Relax. This is your autobiography. You can make it as brief or as complete as you like, but don't expect to write it quickly. It may take years. If you want to finish fast, you might try the $14.95 Memorygrabber software I mentioned early. The publisher offers numerous free downloadable pages on their website, so you can decide if that approach will be useful or not.
The requirements: These are what must be accomplished to achieve the goal. Think of it as a checklist of one or more events. As the requirements are met in the course of the novel, the reader will feel the narrator is getting closer to attaining the goal. Requirements create a sense of anticipation in the reader’s mind, as he looks forward to the narrator’s success.
Were you satisfied with the ending of the memoir? Why or why not? Unlike an autobiography, a memoir does not need to have a linear beginning, middle, and end. Most memoirs end without any firm conclusions or end of life moments. Instead, memoirs may end with thoughts on a running theme throughout the book, or with reflections on the pivotal event or moment in the writer’s life.
Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let’s say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, “I was just a kid but...” or “I tried my best but...” Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don’t have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. “Don’t think and write,” says Temes. “Just write.”
You should check your autobiographical essay for mistakes in spelling, grammar, verb tense, style, punctuation, word forms, etc. No matter how emotional or exciting your writing is, your readers will stop reading as soon as they notice the first grammatical mistake. An illiterate author cannot win the trust of the audience, so you should take this step very seriously.
Use simple words and phrases: Think from reader’s point of view. Do not imagine that everybody will know what you know. Readers will be fed up if the story narration demands scrambling for a dictionary each time they come across a big word or surfing the net for new topics that you haven’t described at least in brief. Use only simple words and phrases that everyone can understand, and when introducing a new concept or subject, explain it so they know what you’re talking about.
Conduct basic research. Depending on your story, you may feel you need to do in-depth research on a certain subject, like air force pilots in WWII or life in a refugee camp in Poland. However, resist doing too much research before you start your first draft. You may get overwhelmed by the amount of information you come across during your research and start to forget your personal take on the facts. Remember that your memoir should focus on your memory of the event, rather than be purely factual or completely accurate.
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.