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.
Create a plot outline. Though you are writing a memoir, following the principles of fiction, such as a plot outline, can help give your book form and shape. It can also make it easier for you to organize your research materials in a way that is engaging and interesting for your reader. A story’s plot is what happens in the story and the order it happens in. For there to be a story, something has to move or change. Something or someone goes from point A to point B due to a physical event, a decision, a change in a relationship, or a change in a character or person. Your plot outline should include:
Many people cannot resist the temptation to tell as much as they can, but a longer piece of writing doesn’t always equal a better piece of writing. For whatever reason you are writing the autobiography, think of the person who is going to read it. Imagine you were an admission officer or the judge in the scholarship committee, and you have to choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of autobiographies. At some point you will hate people who prefer to write long admission essays and autobiographies. There’s also a good way to check whether your writing is interesting or not. Give it to one of your most impatient friends, who prefers short articles to books and long stories, and ask for their opinion.
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 email@example.com.
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.
As is present in the biography of a person, your place and time of birth, your parents’ views, an overview of your personality, your likes and dislikes, and important events that shaped your life should always be included in your autobiography. This will give a mental picture of your life to the readers as a sort of backdrop to the main part of the story.
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.
“Talking about the past can have a healing function, but what we find is that talk, literally, is cheap,” Dr Hunter says. “We speak words and they fly away before we’ve faced what it is they convey. This is not the case with the written word. Writers find themselves saying, ‘ I never really thought about it before’ or ‘ I never saw it this way until I started to write it’.
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
Review your outline again and imagine that is is a web becoming ever more intricate. Every spider web begins with a single supporting thread that anchors all others. Then the spider lays key connecting threads, to which it attaches many, many smaller lines. Watch an animated video of a web being built. Your initial scenes of obstacles and failure make up the supporting threads to which all others in your story web connect.
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.
Below, you’ll find an example of an autobiography provided by one of our experienced writers. You are welcome to use it as a template for your own autobiography. Although you can borrow some ideas about proper structure and writing style, you can’t copy our sample without citing it properly. Please, don’t commit plagiarism! We believe that you are able to create an autobiography that will be no worse than our autobiography example for high school students.
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!
Was your aim to succeed as a businessperson? To be the best parent you could be? To amass wealth? To become a musician? To find love or security? Whatever your goal, think of it as the unifying thread that drives your life, shows the failures and complications you overcame, and demonstrates how you ultimately achieved some form of success as the person you are today.
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For example, let's say you wrote, "From the age of ten, I knew I would become a concert pianist." What specific event triggered this determination? Can you describe that one event in a paragraph or two, using all the senses available to you—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell? Using all five senses will help readers imagine the moment as if they were present with you. This vicarious act of reliving events arouses more emotion in readers than simple summary. and if you can master it, you are well on your way to writing an autobiography! Sensory description: The narrow plank felt warm and smooth beneath my bare feet. I ran its length in three strides, arms extended out from my sides for balance. At the end I took a weightless leap into eighteen inches of space. I caught a barely-there flash of metal just before I landed hard, all my weight on my front foot. Then pain like a red-hot poker jammed through my arch, and the gleaming tip of a three-inch nail as it emerged through the top of my foot. Summary: That day I jumped on a board with a nail in it and it went through my foot.
"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."
You should check your autobiographical essay for mistakes in spelling, grammar, verb tense, style, punctuation, word forms, etc. No matter how emotional or exciting your writing is, your readers will stop reading as soon as they notice the first grammatical mistake. An illiterate author cannot win the trust of the audience, so you should take this step very seriously.
Im scared to do it. I just have things I need to get out, I need to release things that have been hurting me for a very long time. I don’t really feel happy with. I just want to let things out in a private way. I don’t think I want anyone to see these things but I am not sure how to get started(for me) I am sure there are other ppl who prob want the privacy. I am not a writer. I just am looking to get things out that are and have been hurting for a very long time. In a private matter. I do however have a jumble of info flowing constantly. Pls I just would like direction. Thank you for your time.
Create an outline or a graphic organizer of the major topics and ideas you want to cover. For example, you might make a time-order chart -- a chart with event blocks to organize events chronologically. Or, you might draw a cluster web -- a diagram with connected circles -- to divide your autobiography into sections, such as one for relevant background information, one for life-changing events, one for special memories and one for goals and dreams. Focus on reasons why specific events, situations and circumstances were important to you and how they made you feel.