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.
The idea is not to delude yourself that bad things are actually good. It is, instead, to find meaning in the progression from one event to the next. It is to recognize that everything constantly changes. In your life, you will move from triumph to heartbreak to boredom and back again, sometimes in the space of a single day. What are you to make of so many emotions, so many events?
If you think about it, most of us are already sharing our personal stories nowadays. What do you think social media is? We pour out pages and pages with our opinions. We publish photos as testimonials of our daily life. All that can belong to the genre of “creative nonfiction.” Turning a life story into a novel, however, is something else. It has to involve elegance, creativity, and some warmth and humor.
1. “Declare yourself” to your colleagues at work. Doug Conant, the much-admired former CEO of Campbell Soup and founder of Conant Leadership (and one of my favorite people), is an introvert who’s not inclined to schmooze and self-disclose. So he scheduled “Declare Yourself” meetings, one at a time, with each of his direct reports. The purpose of these meetings was to tell his employees his story: how he liked to work, his management philosophy, and the things and people that mattered to him most. (We at Quiet Revolution are partnering with Conant Leadership to develop a “Declare Yourself” tool that you can use with your colleagues. Stay tuned on that.)
Come up with a title. It should match the tone and style of your book, in addition to being attention-grabbing and intriguing. Keep the title short and memorable, rather than wordy and difficult to grasp. You could title it with your name and the words "My Autobiography" or choose something less direct. Here are some famous autobiography titles that perfectly capture the stories inside:
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.
Train yourself to use concrete details rather than abstract concepts. Take another leisurely look at what you've written. Highlight abstract phrases such as "I was afraid," or "we had a pleasant time." Replace these abstract words or phrases with something concrete, such as "my hands shook and my mouth felt stuffed with cotton" or "We drank Chardonnay on the Chatterley's sailboat, and as the sun set Rachel and I walked hand in hand along the boardwalk." Was it "a hot day," or was "the asphalt so hot that your flip flops stuck to the tar"? You might go back to the professional autobiographies you're reading and type out a few passages from the books for practice. If you're watching for it, doing so will focus your attention on the concrete. Most ordinary readers won't think about whether or not you've used abstract or concrete terms. They will know whether the writing is boring or interesting. Writing an autobiography with concrete specificity will only improve it.
Write a rough first draft. You may feel pressure to write and rewrite every sentence you put down. But part of writing a memoir is writing an honest account of a pivotal event, in your own words and with your own style. Avoid putting on a “writer” voice. Instead, don’t be afraid to write like you speak or talk. Include slang and any regional vernacular. Make your story sound like it is coming directly from you.
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.
Use chapter divisions to give the book structure. Chapters are useful because they allow you to move on from discussing certain life periods or events. There's a reason we have the expression that we've "closed a chapter" or "opened a new chapter" in life, and it's even more applicable when discussing an autobiography. Chapter breaks allow you to skip forward 10 years, go back in time, or start describing a new theme without jarring the reader too much.
“Be aware of the pat on the back! It might be the one thing that holds you back. We are always trying to find a way to make people better. In a weakened society, one of the methods people believe works is to give an instant pat on the back to someone once they do something positive/correct, etc. While this may be an effective method, all you are truly doing is weakening one person’s mind. You are essentially training a person to expect a congratulations/ an attaboy, etc., for every fucking thing they do. But, we are forgetting the very basic principles of being a basic fucking human being. Instead of the pat-on-the-back method, why not try this one? The fucking “supposed to” method! It is our job as leaders and teachers to teach people to not always look for the pat on the back rather to build a mindset that we are supposed to do and be our best all the time in every situation. We shouldn’t look for anything from anybody for simply doing our best. You are supposed to get up early, make your bed and clean your house. You are supposed to work out almost every day. You are supposed to do the best you can in school every day. You are supposed to bring your best effort to work every day. That pat on the back should only come when you have exceeded what most people consider exceptional work or have gone above and beyond what is expected. Don’t expect a pat on the back for the shit that a human being is supposed to be doing every day of their lives and that is being the best that he/she can be in every situation in their life. It’s not about you. It’s about your team, the ones you love, and having pride in yourself. It’s not about what others think or feel about you- it’s about how you feel about yourself.” – Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds