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.
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.
If you are not sure that your whole life path is worth attention, then a memoir is your best choice. It is focused on one particular event, relationship, place, or period of your life that has influenced your personality a lot. Don’t be afraid to express your personal feelings and ideas in your memoir, as it shouldn’t be simply a brief list of facts, but the reflection of your inner world.
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.
The success of a good autobiography and any book – comes from the ability of the author to show readers the story from the “outside”, and make the reader feel in your place, “in your shoes.” Everyone does not care about your difficult childhood, or your parents’ divorce, or the fact that in school you were a fat and ugly kid with glasses. But if the difficulties experienced by you will be displayed so that the reader learns some lessons for himself – this would qualify as a good book.
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.
It might be tempting to start your story with "I was born in Dayton, Ohio...," but that is not really where your story begins. It's better to start with an experience. You may wish to start with something like why you were born where you were and how your family's experience led to your birth. If your narrative centers more around a pivotal moment in your life, give the reader a glimpse into that moment. Think about how your favorite movie or novel begins, and look for inspiration from other stories when thinking about how to start your own.
It may help to identify the reading level of the ideal reader of your book. You can determine the reading level based on the grade level of your ideal reader. If you account for ESL readers, you should aim for a grade 6 or 7 reading level. If you are writing for a higher education audience, you may write at a grade 8 or 9 level. You can use the Hemingway app to determine the reading level of your draft, or other online reading level tools.
The people you meet who affect your life, and the success and downfalls you experience help to create who you become. Even the bad experiences can be learned from. In fact, they are probably the most poignant and important ones. If someone hurts you, betrays you, or breaks your heart, forgive them, for they have helped you learn about trust and the importance of being cautious when you open your heart. If someone loves you, love them back unconditionally, not only because they love you, but because in a way, they are teaching you to love and how to open your heart and eyes to things.
Most memoirists struggle to begin their life story and are not sure where to start. Depending on your life story, you may reach out to other family members for details on a childhood memory or event. But it’s important that you also focus on your personal experiences and your recollection of a childhood memory or moment, even if it may be flawed. Often, the best memoirs are about the process of remembering an event, or are about processing a moment in the past that felt important.
“Talking about the past can have a healing function, but what we find is that talk, literally, is cheap,” Dr Hunter says. “We speak words and they fly away before we’ve faced what it is they convey. This is not the case with the written word. Writers find themselves saying, ‘ I never really thought about it before’ or ‘ I never saw it this way until I started to write it’.
These are great tips! Especially about writing what comes to you, not the story you originally set out to write. Sometimes we’re smarter than we even know and something important is trying to come out! I also recommend checking out StoryShelter – it has lots of question prompts to get you writing about your life. See what questions get your attention and maybe do a free write around them to get the juices flowing!
Very inspiring stories. It gives me more pleasure. Some times we forgot to love ourselves because of the things happening around us and we feels that we doesn’t have any value at all. But instead of suffering with these regrets, if we feel that as odd season and if we take a step with belief and prove ourselves, then obviously we can get back the value in the society. By following these kind stories, we can achieve a better life i feel.
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.
“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.”
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
Culture includes the customs of your family, the holidays you preferred, celebrations and rituals you practiced, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. Include special glimpses into things like the most precious gift you got or popular foods served during special celebrations. These details will be lapped up by a hungry audience that wants to know more about a culture that is different from their own.
As is present in the biography of a person, your place and time of birth, your parents’ views, an overview of your personality, your likes and dislikes, and important events that shaped your life should always be included in your autobiography. This will give a mental picture of your life to the readers as a sort of backdrop to the main part of the story.
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.
"Most people don’t think of spiders when they bite into a tomato, but I do. Growing up in southern Ohio, I spent many summer afternoons picking baskets of tomatoes that would be canned or frozen and preserved for cold winter’s dinners. I loved the results of my labors, but I’ll never forget the sight of the enormous, black and white, scary-looking spiders that lived in the plants and created zigzag designs on their webs. In fact, those spiders, with their artistic web creations, inspired my interest in bugs and shaped my career in science."
Capture the spirit of the times. How was your story shaped by the moment in history in which it took place? What wars influenced your politics? What cultural events inspired you? Be sure to include a few important dates so readers can understand the sequencing of the events you are describing. Discussing what happened in the world at large during your lifetime is a good way to make your story more relevant and interesting to those reading it.