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.
“Be aware of the pat on the back! It might be the one thing that holds you back. We are always trying to find a way to make people better. In a weakened society, one of the methods people believe works is to give an instant pat on the back to someone once they do something positive/correct, etc. While this may be an effective method, all you are truly doing is weakening one person’s mind. You are essentially training a person to expect a congratulations/ an attaboy, etc., for every fucking thing they do. But, we are forgetting the very basic principles of being a basic fucking human being. Instead of the pat-on-the-back method, why not try this one? The fucking “supposed to” method! It is our job as leaders and teachers to teach people to not always look for the pat on the back rather to build a mindset that we are supposed to do and be our best all the time in every situation. We shouldn’t look for anything from anybody for simply doing our best. You are supposed to get up early, make your bed and clean your house. You are supposed to work out almost every day. You are supposed to do the best you can in school every day. You are supposed to bring your best effort to work every day. That pat on the back should only come when you have exceeded what most people consider exceptional work or have gone above and beyond what is expected. Don’t expect a pat on the back for the shit that a human being is supposed to be doing every day of their lives and that is being the best that he/she can be in every situation in their life. It’s not about you. It’s about your team, the ones you love, and having pride in yourself. It’s not about what others think or feel about you- it’s about how you feel about yourself.” – Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds
If you are not sure that your whole life path is worth attention, then a memoir is your best choice. It is focused on one particular event, relationship, place, or period of your life that has influenced your personality a lot. Don’t be afraid to express your personal feelings and ideas in your memoir, as it shouldn’t be simply a brief list of facts, but the reflection of your inner world.
Why did the author choose to highlight certain events in their life in the memoir? Consider why the memoirist chose a certain section of their childhood or a specific life event as the focus of the book. For example, Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking focuses on the recent deaths of her husband and her daughter, while Nabokov’s Speak, Memory focuses on his childhood in Russia. One event is in the recent past while one event is in the very distant past. Yet both events have a very strong, and possibly traumatic, effect on the writers.
Use simple words and phrases: Think from reader’s point of view. Do not imagine that everybody will know what you know. Readers will be fed up if the story narration demands scrambling for a dictionary each time they come across a big word or surfing the net for new topics that you haven’t described at least in brief. Use only simple words and phrases that everyone can understand, and when introducing a new concept or subject, explain it so they know what you’re talking about.
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.
Think honestly about your experiences, too. Don't just focus on the best parts of your memories; think about the details within those times. While Christmas morning may be a magical memory, you might also consider the scene around you. Include details like your mother making breakfast, your father spilling his coffee, someone upset over relatives coming into town, and other small details like that. Understanding the full experience of positives and negatives helps you paint a better picture for the reader and lead to a stronger and more interesting narrative. Learn to tie together all the interesting elements of your life story and craft them into an engaging essay.
Incorporate dialogue into your autobiography to make it more personal, recommends history professor Robert Gerlich at Loyola University in New Orleans. Consider including humor when it's appropriate. For example, if you're writing about how you got lost at Disneyland when you were 10 years old and how the experience helped you learn to face obstacles, problem solve and overcome your fears, you might write, "The attendant at Splash Mountain said, 'Are you OK? Did you get separated from your family?' I quickly replied with as much bravado as I could muster, 'Nah, I'm fine. My eyes are just wet from the ride.' I didn't want her to know I was crying."