Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let’s say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, “I was just a kid but...” or “I tried my best but...” Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don’t have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. “Don’t think and write,” says Temes. “Just write.”
What were the narrator’s desires in the memoir? What was motivating the narrator to share this particular story with the reader? Often, memoirs can be cathartic for the writer. Perhaps the writer was trying to process a year of grieving and loss, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, or perhaps the writer was trying to describe a childhood in a concentration camp, as Spiegelman does in his memoir Maus. Consider the motivations of the writer for putting down their story and presenting it to readers.
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.
Culture includes the customs of your family, the holidays you preferred, celebrations and rituals you practiced, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. Include special glimpses into things like the most precious gift you got or popular foods served during special celebrations. These details will be lapped up by a hungry audience that wants to know more about a culture that is different from their own.
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.
Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it’s a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.
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.
"I was 12 years old when my mother passed away. By the time I was 15, I had become an expert in dodging bill collectors, recycling hand-me-down jeans, and stretching a single meal’s worth of ground beef into two family dinners. Although I was a child when I lost my mother, I was never able to mourn or to let myself become too absorbed in thoughts of personal loss. The fortitude I developed at a young age was the driving force that would see me through many other challenges."
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.
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.
Identify your audience. To create an effective bio you need to determine who will be reading your bio and what impression you want them to have. The purpose of your bio will help identify the audience. For a job application the audience will be employers, for a speaking engagement the audience will be comprised of people interested in the topic you are speaking on.
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.
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.
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 by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.