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 richard@guidedlifestories.com.

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.

Yes, you have to be precisely honest and quite revealing and candid to write a successful autobiography. And obviously, you need to describe some hardships of your life to show how you coped with that or how it influenced you. However, we strongly advise you to describe the thing that you feel rather calm about when writing. For example, you are writing about other students picking and making fun of you at high school. If you still feel like wanting to kill them all, it would be better to avoid this topic or mention it slightly. Why so? Because your feelings will leak into the writing and make your reader feel subconsciously uncomfortable.
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.
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:
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[3] by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.
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.
Yes, you have to be precisely honest and quite revealing and candid to write a successful autobiography. And obviously, you need to describe some hardships of your life to show how you coped with that or how it influenced you. However, we strongly advise you to describe the thing that you feel rather calm about when writing. For example, you are writing about other students picking and making fun of you at high school. If you still feel like wanting to kill them all, it would be better to avoid this topic or mention it slightly. Why so? Because your feelings will leak into the writing and make your reader feel subconsciously uncomfortable.
Thanks for an encouraging article! I have often thought about starting to write down my life story but have not yet started. Really, getting where I am now from where I started has been an unlikely and incredible journey. Every time I think about it though I get bogged down in how much there is to write, but if I don’t start I could get hit by a truck and everything I have to say to the few surviving family members I have will die with my brain.
Remember every significant event, unusual experience, or important person in your life. That might take a considerable amount of time, as we think that your life has been interesting enough, and you have many worthy moments. If you want to write about your childhood, you’d better apply to the “experts” – your parents. Perhaps you did something outstanding and awesome when you were a child.
You may wonder how to start an autobiography introduction. The answer is simple: the same way you start other essays’ introductions. The main purpose of the introductory paragraph is to grab the reader’s attention and present the idea and theme of your writing. Don’t make the first paragraph too long: between one and three sentences are enough to compose a regular introduction. Try to provide readers with a general portrait of yourself, so they will know more about the main “hero.” Mention your age, significant personal qualities, and principles of worldview. You can also add some details about your appearance in order to make your story more vivid.
It’s possible that writing your life story could be therapeutic, offering closure on some not so bright spots of your personal history along with emotional and psychological healing. Maybe your life was just a circus act from the beginning and is funny. If writing your life story touches you while you are writing it, think about all the people you can touch when they read it.
I have lead a very full and sometimes complicated life. I have worked in many different vocations and participated in most all of the arts. I have been ask probably 100s of times why I don’t write a book about my life and or experiences. I realize that aspects of my life are things that should maybe written down for prosperity, but when I begin to think about what to write about, or what area to write about, I am bewildered. To fully write my life would take me volumes of words. I can remember from the age of two until now and yesterday I turned 76. At times I think of things that I think are important, but then other times I think of dozens of things are important. Many of my learned friends call “The Renaissance Man”. I am at a loss.
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!
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.
If the purpose of your autobiography is to pass on your story to your heirs, consider including memorabilia (e.g. pictures, heirlooms, medals, mementos, letters, etc.) and putting your story in a scrapbook format. Of course, you may not be able to copy the memorabilia that accompanies your autobiography, so you still have to think about what you intend to do with your original work and other items, such as medals or bulky heirlooms.

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.
Why it helps: There’s no need to do the actual examination and investigation now. Instead, just focus on identifying what it is you might delve into someday—in a memoir or in the pages of a journal or just in your mind. What truth is important for you to get at? You have a structure (your three sentences), you have a crucial event (that may have caused or contributed to that life story) and now you have a purpose—a reason for writing that will let you learn, enjoy and even be surprised by the story you’ve been waiting to tell yourself and—maybe, just maybe, the world, as well.
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.
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