What were the narrator’s desires in the memoir? What was motivating the narrator to share this particular story with the reader? Often, memoirs can be cathartic for the writer. Perhaps the writer was trying to process a year of grieving and loss, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, or perhaps the writer was trying to describe a childhood in a concentration camp, as Spiegelman does in his memoir Maus. Consider the motivations of the writer for putting down their story and presenting it to readers.
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.
Choose something small, but memorable, like a chocolate, a cup of coffee, or a cookie – something indulgent but relatively guilt free. This tells the Unconscious that it’s okay to learn how to write your life story. There’s nothing threatening going on. And soon enough, your Unconscious will let go of its defenses and allow the memories keep flowing.
Many people cannot resist the temptation to tell as much as they can, but a longer piece of writing doesn’t always equal a better piece of writing. For whatever reason you are writing the autobiography, think of the person who is going to read it. Imagine you were an admission officer or the judge in the scholarship committee, and you have to choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of autobiographies. At some point you will hate people who prefer to write long admission essays and autobiographies. There’s also a good way to check whether your writing is interesting or not. Give it to one of your most impatient friends, who prefers short articles to books and long stories, and ask for their opinion.
The theme of your life is to be defined before the story is written. Your goal – and your ultimate achievement of that goal – can be the theme. You should also remember to include something that takes the focus from the past and present, and puts it on the future. A particular event that had a huge impact on your life can be your theme. Find and mark that one day and or one event that twisted your life out of shape and made you think about your future. In general, the end or beginning of somebody’s life has a tremendous impact on many people’s lives. It is around this theme that the story should be woven like rich tapestry of many colors and flavors.
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.
Pull out the best stories. The story of your entire life would start to get pretty long-winded, so you'll have to make some decisions about what anecdotes you're going to include. Begin drafting your manuscript by writing out the main stories that will be woven together to create a picture of your life. There are a few main topics that most autobiographies cover since readers find them fascinating.
Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. The memoir is based on a man’s life that reads like a movie. He escaped from communist Hungary in the 60’s only to be held as a spy in a neighboring country. He got his Fiance out first and she married someone else while he was being held as a spy. His life started with a bomb landing less than ten feet from the stroller he was in – and the bomb didn’t explode.
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."