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.
Limit it to 15 minutes, no more – at least at first. Fifteen minutes, three times a week, always at the same time and always in the same place. Stay there for all 15 minutes even if you can’t think of anything to write. This will set up a rhythm, in the same way we get hungry at mealtimes whether or not we’re really hungry. This isn’t just about finding time to write your life story.
“I was born in 19XX year, I entered school N…” Would you read that if you had a choice? Most likely not, especially if you already have read a dozen biographies which star with the same phrase. Yes, an autobiography is a formal piece of writing. But here, it rather means that you are not allowed to use slang and colloquial language, instead of following a specific pattern of writing.
You can find examples of how to write an autobiography in the stories of sports figures, great religious leaders, government officials, doctors, railroad workers, singers and actors, along with ordinary people who found meaning in their lives. Choose a category or person that inspires you, and read several examples of how great life stories are shared with the public.
Why it helps: There’s no need to do the actual examination and investigation now. Instead, just focus on identifying what it is you might delve into someday—in a memoir or in the pages of a journal or just in your mind. What truth is important for you to get at? You have a structure (your three sentences), you have a crucial event (that may have caused or contributed to that life story) and now you have a purpose—a reason for writing that will let you learn, enjoy and even be surprised by the story you’ve been waiting to tell yourself and—maybe, just maybe, the world, as well.
If you think about it, most of us are already sharing our personal stories nowadays. What do you think social media is? We pour out pages and pages with our opinions. We publish photos as testimonials of our daily life. All that can belong to the genre of “creative nonfiction.” Turning a life story into a novel, however, is something else. It has to involve elegance, creativity, and some warmth and humor.
I have lead a very full and sometimes complicated life. I have worked in many different vocations and participated in most all of the arts. I have been ask probably 100s of times why I don’t write a book about my life and or experiences. I realize that aspects of my life are things that should maybe written down for prosperity, but when I begin to think about what to write about, or what area to write about, I am bewildered. To fully write my life would take me volumes of words. I can remember from the age of two until now and yesterday I turned 76. At times I think of things that I think are important, but then other times I think of dozens of things are important. Many of my learned friends call “The Renaissance Man”. I am at a loss.
If the project becomes too much for you at any point, remember that writing an autobiography takes time. Take the pressure off. Relax. This is your autobiography. You can make it as brief or as complete as you like, but don't expect to write it quickly. It may take years. If you want to finish fast, you might try the $14.95 Memorygrabber software I mentioned early. The publisher offers numerous free downloadable pages on their website, so you can decide if that approach will be useful or not.
Remember every significant event, unusual experience, or important person in your life. That might take a considerable amount of time, as we think that your life has been interesting enough, and you have many worthy moments. If you want to write about your childhood, you’d better apply to the “experts” – your parents. Perhaps you did something outstanding and awesome when you were a child.
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.