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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I was born in 19XX year, I entered school N…” Would you read that if you had a choice? Most likely not, especially if you already have read a dozen biographies which star with the same phrase. Yes, an autobiography is a formal piece of writing. But here, it rather means that you are not allowed to use slang and colloquial language, instead of following a specific pattern of writing.
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.
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.”
People choose to write about their lives for a variety of reasons, including a desire to leave a memoir for their children and future generations, to create a record for themselves so they can be reminded of their youthful adventures when they're old and forgetful, and to offer something of value to the rest of the world. Writing a memoir is a very personal experience, but if you're willing to share your life story, it can be incredibly rewarding.
"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."
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The inciting incident is the pivotal moment in your story, where you realized your desire line. It could be a seemingly small moment, such as a brief fight with your mother, that becomes a major moment or inciting incident in your story. For example, your brief fight with your mother could be the last time you speak to her before she passes away and leaves you letters about her life in Poland. Think of the ah ha moment in your story when you realized what you wanted in your life, or where you realized you were wrong about your assumptions about a specific moment or event.
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.
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.