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.
Start by writing the story of your life for yourself first. After you edit and polish it, share it with a few trusted people. Then, after you edit and polish it again, share your life story with a wider swath of people. This will help ensure your memoirs are your best possible work, and that your writing is something you’ll be proud of at the end of your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ruth O’Neil has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years, publishing hundreds of articles in dozens of publications. Her first novel Come Eat at My Table came out earlier this year. Her second is on its way. When she’s not writing, Ruth spends her time quilting, reading, scrapbooking, camping and hiking with her family. Visit her blog at http://www.ruths-real-life.blogspot.com or website at http://ruthoneil.weebly.com.
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.
Once you have taken a look at your own life from an outsider’s point of view, you will be able to select the most interesting elements from your notes to establish a theme. What was the most interesting thing you came up with in your research? Was it the history of your family and your region? Here is an example of how you can turn that into a theme:
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.
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 else happened after each of these main events? What was important to you at this time? Did you have any special friends? A pet? A romantic partner? A spouse? What specific event will best show the relationship you had with this person or animal? Was the best friend who helped you through a difficult time a kind and gentle soul? What single act of kindness most stands out when you think of this person? Write about that. What actions and dialogue can you relate in concrete detail to help readers understand that relationship and its importance?
These two sets illustrate how you should show the entire action and then show the entire reaction. Don't mix the two together in one paragraph. Write your entire book in this way — action and reaction, one complete set after another. If one part of the set is missing, readers will sense an awkwardness. If you're writing an autobiography, or anything else, action/reaction sequences will make your writing lively and natural. As you expand your ideas, write in action/reaction pairs.
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.
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You may wonder how to start an autobiography introduction. The answer is simple: the same way you start other essays’ introductions. The main purpose of the introductory paragraph is to grab the reader’s attention and present the idea and theme of your writing. Don’t make the first paragraph too long: between one and three sentences are enough to compose a regular introduction. Try to provide readers with a general portrait of yourself, so they will know more about the main “hero.” Mention your age, significant personal qualities, and principles of worldview. You can also add some details about your appearance in order to make your story more vivid.
People usually tend to think that writing all this will be monotonous for them and boring for their potential readers, but you will soon find your life to be unique from anyone else’s as you undertake this task. Add in information like interesting snippets from the lives of your ancestors, their achievements and the popularity of your place of birth. This will inspire readers to gather even more information from other sources.
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Weave in themes. Use the major themes of your life as a way to tie stories together, connecting your past and your present. Aside from the central conflict, what themes have followed you throughout your life? A fondness for certain holidays, your fascination with a certain place that you visited over and over, a certain type of guy you've always fallen for, a rich spiritual life you fall back on again and again. Bring up the themes every so often to help form a cohesive picture of your life.