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.
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.
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.
Conduct basic research. Depending on your story, you may feel you need to do in-depth research on a certain subject, like air force pilots in WWII or life in a refugee camp in Poland. However, resist doing too much research before you start your first draft. You may get overwhelmed by the amount of information you come across during your research and start to forget your personal take on the facts. Remember that your memoir should focus on your memory of the event, rather than be purely factual or completely accurate.
"Today, the plains and low hills of southeastern Ohio make the perfect setting for large cracker box-shaped farmhouses surrounded by miles of corn rows. Many of the farming families in this region descended from the Irish settlers who came rolling in on covered wagons in the 1830s to find work building canals and railways. My ancestors were among those settlers."
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.
Culture includes the customs of your family, the holidays you preferred, celebrations and rituals you practiced, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. Include special glimpses into things like the most precious gift you got or popular foods served during special celebrations. These details will be lapped up by a hungry audience that wants to know more about a culture that is different from their own.
It might be tempting to start your story with "I was born in Dayton, Ohio...," but that is not really where your story begins. It's better to start with an experience. You may wish to start with something like why you were born where you were and how your family's experience led to your birth. If your narrative centers more around a pivotal moment in your life, give the reader a glimpse into that moment. Think about how your favorite movie or novel begins, and look for inspiration from other stories when thinking about how to start your own.
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.
How did the memoir keep the reader engaged and interested in the story? The best memoirs are honest and unflinching, with details or admissions that the writer may be afraid to make. The writer may write in a way that feels truthful, full of moments that may not make the writer look good or conflicted. But readers often respond to vulnerability in a memoir, and a writer who is not afraid to describe their failures along with their successes.
Show, don't tell. Engage your reader by showing them a specific process or scene, rather than narrate directly to them. For example, write a scene that shows the reader how you discovered your mother’s letters from her family in Poland after her death. This will give the reader key information to help move the story forward, without telling them in a long, uneventful passage.
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.
Be revealing. You don't have to be explicit, but it's important to reveal truths about yourself and your life in an autobiography. Don't let the book become a list of your accomplishments, with all the negative material carefully kept under the rug. Present yourself as a whole person, sharing talents and flaws alike, and your readers will be able to identify with you and hopefully root for you as they make their way through your story.