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's your central conflict? What's the biggest obstacle life presented that took years to overcome or come to terms with? Maybe it's an illness you were diagnosed with at an early age, a relationship wrought with turmoil, a series of career setbacks, a goal you worked for decades to achieve, or any other number of things. Look to your favorite books and movies for more examples of conflicts.
Understand the memoir genre. In a memoir, you are the main character of your own life story. Many memoirists use the facts of their life story to create an engaging tale for the reader. Because you are relying on your own memories as source material for the story, you may end up describing things differently than others might remember it. The key is to write down things as you remember it, in the most honest way possible. Keep in mind memoirs are different from autobiographies in that memoirs should only cover certain key aspects of your life, not your life from birth until the present day.
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.
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.
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.
Either way, this jump is disturbing, but the description likely caused you to cringe more than the summary. And doesn't some part of you want to know what happened next? Who came to help? How quickly they reached a doctor? If all had turned out well in the jump, you would not have the same compulsion to read on. If you can't think of any details, write a line of summary and return to fill in the details as you remember them. If you remain relaxed about it, you will remember. If you don't, you don't. Writing an autobiography isn't easy, but it should be enjoyable.
Conclude the autobiography with an experience gained, a lesson learned and a resolution you decided to take after that. Explain to the reader how that resolution set the tone for whatever you achieved in your life from that point forward. This classic format uses the “hero” theme that is endearing to most people. Everyone loves an underdog who was given lemons and ended up making lemonade!
According to the fascinating field of “narrative psychology,” the stories we tell about ourselves are the key to our well-being. If you’ve interpreted the events of your life to mean that you’re unlucky or unwise, it’s hard to look optimistically at the future. Conversely, if you acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes and faced difficulties but seek (or have already glimpsed) redemption, you’ll feel a much greater sense of agency over your life.
Review your outline again and imagine that is is a web becoming ever more intricate. Every spider web begins with a single supporting thread that anchors all others. Then the spider lays key connecting threads, to which it attaches many, many smaller lines. Watch an animated video of a web being built. Your initial scenes of obstacles and failure make up the supporting threads to which all others in your story web connect.
Think honestly about your experiences, too. Don't just focus on the best parts of your memories; think about the details within those times. While Christmas morning may be a magical memory, you might also consider the scene around you. Include details like your mother making breakfast, your father spilling his coffee, someone upset over relatives coming into town, and other small details like that. Understanding the full experience of positives and negatives helps you paint a better picture for the reader and lead to a stronger and more interesting narrative. Learn to tie together all the interesting elements of your life story and craft them into an engaging essay.
Once you have taken a look at your own life from an outsider’s point of view, you will be able to select the most interesting elements from your notes to establish a theme. What was the most interesting thing you came up with in your research? Was it the history of your family and your region? Here is an example of how you can turn that into a theme:
While you might not remember every detail about a certain event, I guarantee someone who was there does remember. Asking family and friends for ideas or details of a certain situation can give you a completely different perspective of the event or time in your life. That perspective might prove to be invaluable in your writing. Be prepared; once you get a group of family and friends together to reminisce, you will be shocked at how quickly the ideas come and how one idea can spark another and another and another.
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.
Write out your life timeline. Start writing your autobiography by conducting research on your own life. Creating a timeline of your life is a good way to make sure you include all the most important dates and events, and it gives you a structure to build upon. You can consider this the "brainstorming" phase, so don't hesitate to write down everything you can remember, even if you don't think the memory will make it into the final version of the book.