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.
2. Share your stories with your family. A few weeks ago, I told my 7-year-old son about a story I’m writing for kids. I mentioned that I’d been working on this story for months. “How come you never told me before?” he wanted to know. He was genuinely shocked—maybe even a little hurt—that I’d kept the plot points to myself. “I guess I didn’t think you’d be interested,” I told him truthfully. He is obsessed with soccer and ice hockey, and mine is a story of girls, time travel, and shyness. But it bothered him that I had a story I’d chosen not to mention. From now on, I’ll err on the side of sharing the things I dream up even if they have nothing to do with soccer balls and hockey pucks.
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.
Your readers won’t be interested in reading the whole text of your autobiography if you don’t provide a good impression in the introduction. Convince your audience that your story is unique, original, and is worth their time. If you are going to write about an episode from your childhood, use a feeling of nostalgia to create a tight connection between readers and your own memories. Remember that all people are the same to some extent. We live through similar experiences every day, so you should use these similarities to make your writing attractive for the general public.
"Today, the plains and low hills of southeastern Ohio make the perfect setting for large cracker box-shaped farmhouses surrounded by miles of corn rows. Many of the farming families in this region descended from the Irish settlers who came rolling in on covered wagons in the 1830s to find work building canals and railways. My ancestors were among those settlers."
Limit it to 15 minutes, no more – at least at first. Fifteen minutes, three times a week, always at the same time and always in the same place. Stay there for all 15 minutes even if you can’t think of anything to write. This will set up a rhythm, in the same way we get hungry at mealtimes whether or not we’re really hungry. This isn’t just about finding time to write your life story.
For example, let's say you wrote, "From the age of ten, I knew I would become a concert pianist." What specific event triggered this determination? Can you describe that one event in a paragraph or two, using all the senses available to you—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell? Using all five senses will help readers imagine the moment as if they were present with you. This vicarious act of reliving events arouses more emotion in readers than simple summary. and if you can master it, you are well on your way to writing an autobiography! Sensory description: The narrow plank felt warm and smooth beneath my bare feet. I ran its length in three strides, arms extended out from my sides for balance. At the end I took a weightless leap into eighteen inches of space. I caught a barely-there flash of metal just before I landed hard, all my weight on my front foot. Then pain like a red-hot poker jammed through my arch, and the gleaming tip of a three-inch nail as it emerged through the top of my foot. Summary: That day I jumped on a board with a nail in it and it went through my foot.
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.
Create an overarching plot. Now that you know what content you want to include in your autobiography, think about how you want to structure your book. Like any great book, your autobiography needs a great plot. Work with the material you have to craft an interesting story that builds toward a climax and ultimately resolves. Create a narrative arc by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.
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.
Sometimes people come into your life and you know right away that they were meant to be there, to serve some sort of purpose, teach you a lesson, or to help you figure out who you are or who you want to become. You never know who these people may be (possibly your roommate, neighbor, coworker, longlost friend, lover, or even a complete stranger) but when you lock eyes with them, you know at that very moment that they will affect your life in some profound way.
I think the first and best step to getting things out – but not necessarily writing your life story for anyone else to read – is to buy a journal. Start writing about your experiences and painful memories. It will hurt, but the only to get past the pain is to go through it. The more it hurts, the better it will be in the long run to process the experience.
This guest post is by Richard Campbell. Campbell is co-author of Writing Your Legacy – The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story, published worldwide in July 2015 by Writer’s Digest Books. Richard teaches Legacy Writing to adult learners in Ontario, Canada, as well as to guests on board transatlantic crossings with a major cruise line. He is passionate about life story writing and has guested on several Top 50 U.S. radio stations. He would love to hear from you and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Build tension and suspense. Structure the narrative so that you have a series of stories leading up to the climax of the conflict. If your central conflict is trying to reach the goal of competing in the Olympics for skiing, lead up to it with stories of small successes and plenty of failures. You want your readers to ask, will she make it? Can he do it? What's going to happen next?