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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Show, don't tell. Engage your reader by showing them a specific process or scene, rather than narrate directly to them. For example, write a scene that shows the reader how you discovered your mother’s letters from her family in Poland after her death. This will give the reader key information to help move the story forward, without telling them in a long, uneventful passage.
According to the fascinating field of “narrative psychology,” the stories we tell about ourselves are the key to our well-being. If you’ve interpreted the events of your life to mean that you’re unlucky or unwise, it’s hard to look optimistically at the future. Conversely, if you acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes and faced difficulties but seek (or have already glimpsed) redemption, you’ll feel a much greater sense of agency over your life.
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?
Writing your life story can be one of the most complex forms of storytelling. It could involve emerging themes, narrative flow, and re-creating dialogue from memory. Or it can be surprisingly easy and fun. What if I was to show you a powerful and unique method of capturing a dynamic life by using legacy themes? It involves just ten of these. Best of all, these legacy themes are easy to write with only 2-3 pages for each. If you have ever written a high school term essay, you can write your life story.
You may not have had the most interesting childhood in the world, but everyone has had a few memorable experiences. Highlight the best parts when you can. If you live in a big city, for instance, you should realize that many people who grew up in the country have never ridden a subway, walked to school, ridden in a taxi, or walked to a store a few blocks 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:
People usually tend to think that writing all this will be monotonous for them and boring for their potential readers, but you will soon find your life to be unique from anyone else’s as you undertake this task. Add in information like interesting snippets from the lives of your ancestors, their achievements and the popularity of your place of birth. This will inspire readers to gather even more information from other sources.
While you might not remember every detail about a certain event, I guarantee someone who was there does remember. Asking family and friends for ideas or details of a certain situation can give you a completely different perspective of the event or time in your life. That perspective might prove to be invaluable in your writing. Be prepared; once you get a group of family and friends together to reminisce, you will be shocked at how quickly the ideas come and how one idea can spark another and another and another.
Not necessarily a writer, but still want to record your story somehow? Don’t think that there’s no hope for you. Consider making audio or video recordings. Audio recordings can be especially helpful. You can take audio recordings to a writer/transcriptionist who can then type out your story in a logical order. Working closely with a writer as you verbally record your stories can be an alternative when you feel you are too close to the story.
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.
These memories are also important because they point backwards to what was, and forwards to what was about to happen, with a sense that there was now a new way of seeing these stretches of time. In each memory, moreover, there is likely to be a huge gift – each will reflect a theme, possibly a major theme, which will play out in the rest of the writers’ life.
Stick to informal language, unless it’s absolutely necessary to use formal terms. Instead of “utilize” you can just put “use”. Focus on simple language, with one or two syllable words. The only time you should be using higher level language is if you are using scientific terms or describing a technical process. Even then, you should be writing for the average reader.
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.
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.
Start by writing the story of your life for yourself first. After you edit and polish it, share it with a few trusted people. Then, after you edit and polish it again, share your life story with a wider swath of people. This will help ensure your memoirs are your best possible work, and that your writing is something you’ll be proud of at the end of your life.
Weave in themes. Use the major themes of your life as a way to tie stories together, connecting your past and your present. Aside from the central conflict, what themes have followed you throughout your life? A fondness for certain holidays, your fascination with a certain place that you visited over and over, a certain type of guy you've always fallen for, a rich spiritual life you fall back on again and again. Bring up the themes every so often to help form a cohesive picture of your life.