Have you ever read an autobiography? Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for example, is an exceptionally powerful one. “DEAR SON: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” That’s how it starts. But, Benjamin Franklin was an exceptional person, after all. That’s the point: autobiographies are for exceptional people. You’re exceptional, too. You have a special story that’s worth sharing. The only thing to learn is how to write a life story about yourself.
“Writing your memoir can be one of the best things you could ever do for yourself,” says Dr Hunter, author of Write Your Memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story. “I’ve worked with memoirists and with personal essay writers for thirty years and the thing that never fails to astonish me is that when people write their lives, they are changed by the experience.”
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.
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.
Weave in themes. Use the major themes of your life as a way to tie stories together, connecting your past and your present. Aside from the central conflict, what themes have followed you throughout your life? A fondness for certain holidays, your fascination with a certain place that you visited over and over, a certain type of guy you've always fallen for, a rich spiritual life you fall back on again and again. Bring up the themes every so often to help form a cohesive picture of your life.
The consequence(s): Ask yourself, What disaster will happen if the goal is not achieved? What is my protagonist afraid will happen if she doesn’t achieve the goal or solve the problem? The consequence is the negative situation or event that will result if the goal is not achieved. The combination of goal and consequence creates the main dramatic tension in your plot. It’s what makes the plot meaningful.
True, writing is a helpful way to express oneself and a medium for a quiet introspection. For me, there is no better way to recount how my day has been than to write it. I have always found it fascinating to read through my previous scribbles and rediscover the kind of person I was at that time and the person I’ve become. And that for me, is good enough as a story.
After considering these factors, the next step is writing a draft. Start by looking through the best autobiography openings you can find and figure out which you can use as a model. Make sure that you write in the first person since that’s what autobiographies are all about. Never switch back to second-person or third-person and be consistent in using the first person point of view throughout the entire content.
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.
If the purpose of your autobiography is to pass on your story to your heirs, consider including memorabilia (e.g. pictures, heirlooms, medals, mementos, letters, etc.) and putting your story in a scrapbook format. Of course, you may not be able to copy the memorabilia that accompanies your autobiography, so you still have to think about what you intend to do with your original work and other items, such as medals or bulky heirlooms.
Identify the main characters. Every good story has interesting characters, friends and foes who help move the plot along. Who are the characters in your life? It's a given that your parents will play a role, along with your spouse and other close family members. Think beyond your immediate family to others who have affected your life and should play a role in your autobiography.