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.
Understand the memoir genre. In a memoir, you are the main character of your own life story. Many memoirists use the facts of their life story to create an engaging tale for the reader. Because you are relying on your own memories as source material for the story, you may end up describing things differently than others might remember it. The key is to write down things as you remember it, in the most honest way possible. Keep in mind memoirs are different from autobiographies in that memoirs should only cover certain key aspects of your life, not your life from birth until the present day.
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.
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.
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.
Organize what you've written according to cause and effect and action and reaction. Ordering events according to cause and effect is a natural process. Your car broke down, so you called a tow truck. That's cause and effect. You received a promotion, so you bought a house. Action/reaction happens paragraph by paragraph. He said "No," so you said "Why?" That's action/reaction. She set a wet glass on the table, so you placed a coaster under it, and remembered how your mother used to crochet pretty little coasters and starch them. That's action/reaction.
Writing about your life is important because it gives you a chance to reflect. Journaling is one of the main practices that therapists recommend for promoting mental health. It helps people manage anxiety, cope with stress, and deal with depression. When you maintain a journal and you go through your previous entries, you witness your memories without distorting the reality. You see your progress. You remind yourself of the important things you forgot.
That’s it. Writing these ten themes will result in a concise story that covers all essential aspects of a life well lived. For added context to your story, Writing Your Legacy offers 25 additional themes, including those on your life values, greatest personal achievements, your cultural heritage, life after retirement, and life miracles. It can be your New Year’s Resolution to create the perfect gift to your children or grandchildren. For free downloads, try www.guidedlifestories.com.
These two sets illustrate how you should show the entire action and then show the entire reaction. Don't mix the two together in one paragraph. Write your entire book in this way — action and reaction, one complete set after another. If one part of the set is missing, readers will sense an awkwardness. If you're writing an autobiography, or anything else, action/reaction sequences will make your writing lively and natural. As you expand your ideas, write in action/reaction pairs.
Develop a central theme, main idea or thesis that clearly explains the purpose behind your autobiography. For example, your theme might be about how you overcame obstacles to become a stronger person, or it might explain why a particular passion -- such as mountain climbing or rescuing animals -- is so important to you. Back your theme with details and background information about your life experiences. For example, you might explain that your dad is in the military, so you've had to learn how to adapt quickly to new schools and unfamiliar environments. Or, you might discuss what it was like growing up in a poor, single-parent home, but how your family was always willing to take in injured or stray pets.