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.
Have you ever read an autobiography? Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for example, is an exceptionally powerful one. “DEAR SON: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” That’s how it starts. But, Benjamin Franklin was an exceptional person, after all. That’s the point: autobiographies are for exceptional people. You’re exceptional, too. You have a special story that’s worth sharing. The only thing to learn is how to write a life story about yourself.
2. Share your stories with your family. A few weeks ago, I told my 7-year-old son about a story I’m writing for kids. I mentioned that I’d been working on this story for months. “How come you never told me before?” he wanted to know. He was genuinely shocked—maybe even a little hurt—that I’d kept the plot points to myself. “I guess I didn’t think you’d be interested,” I told him truthfully. He is obsessed with soccer and ice hockey, and mine is a story of girls, time travel, and shyness. But it bothered him that I had a story I’d chosen not to mention. From now on, I’ll err on the side of sharing the things I dream up even if they have nothing to do with soccer balls and hockey pucks.
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.
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.
Yes, you have to be precisely honest and quite revealing and candid to write a successful autobiography. And obviously, you need to describe some hardships of your life to show how you coped with that or how it influenced you. However, we strongly advise you to describe the thing that you feel rather calm about when writing. For example, you are writing about other students picking and making fun of you at high school. If you still feel like wanting to kill them all, it would be better to avoid this topic or mention it slightly. Why so? Because your feelings will leak into the writing and make your reader feel subconsciously uncomfortable.
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.
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.
Writing is important for expressing opinions and ideas. Just open your Facebook feed for a moment. In between all those cooking videos and funny images, what do you see? Opinions and ideas. They are everywhere. Check out the comments under a post that shares important news. You’ll see that some people have strong opinions, others don’t. You’ll notice a classification among those that have strong opinions: some can express them, others can’t. That’s the big difference that writing skills can make.
The autobiography is the longest and the fullest story about yourself. You can write it for your personal use in order to structure and perpetuate your memories. If you are sure that your life will be an interesting theme to read about, you may create an autobiography for the wider public. An autobiography covers the period from the day of your birth until today. If you think that your life journey will be a good example for others, include the information on how you have achieved your goals and success and how you got your autobiography published.
Also, it’s important to know who you’re writing your life story for. Writing for your family and friends is great! But it requires a different perspective than writing for publication. If you’re interested in getting your life story published by a traditional publishing house, then you’ll need a whole different perspective than if you’re self-publishing your memoirs.
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.
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.
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.