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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
Do you remember any other challenges you had to overcome that relate to each main point in the story? Did you move? Were you ill? Did anyone close to you die? Did any of these people or events affect the choices you made during that stage of your life? Do you remember any amusing or embarrassing incidents related to this success or failure? What high points and low points do you recall? Was a specific holiday or celebration memorable? A specific meal or car ride?
Your life story, or autobiography, should contain the basic framework that any essay should have, with four basic elements. Begin with an introduction that includes a thesis statement, followed by a body containing at least several paragraphs, if not several chapters. To complete the autobiography, you'll need a strong conclusion, all the while crafting an interesting narrative with a theme.
What to write: Try to summarize your life in two or three sentences. Take your time. Think about your past. “But mostly think about who you are today and how you got that way,” says Roberta Temes, PhD, psychologist and author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days. “Maybe you want to focus on a certain relationship, maybe a certain theme...or maybe a feeling that has persisted for years.”
If your writing is atrocious, or if you just need some help getting your thoughts in order, consider hiring a ghostwriter or a professional personal historian. Celebrities do it all the time. There is also a software that allows you to type your answers into a template on your computer, thus solving the problem of less-than-perfect handwriting. Many people also choose to type directly into an online template.
What's your story? Anyone who has lived a full life has something fascinating to share with the world. The trick to writing an autobiography is to treat it like any good story: it should have a protagonist (you), a central conflict, and a cast of fascinating characters to keep people engaged. You may want to think about a certain theme or idea that has been present in your daily life to revolve your story around. Read on to learn how to craft the story of your life and polish your writing to make it sing.