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.
Do you remember any other challenges you had to overcome that relate to each main point in the story? Did you move? Were you ill? Did anyone close to you die? Did any of these people or events affect the choices you made during that stage of your life? Do you remember any amusing or embarrassing incidents related to this success or failure? What high points and low points do you recall? Was a specific holiday or celebration memorable? A specific meal or car ride?
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.
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.
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: 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.
"Most people don’t think of spiders when they bite into a tomato, but I do. Growing up in southern Ohio, I spent many summer afternoons picking baskets of tomatoes that would be canned or frozen and preserved for cold winter’s dinners. I loved the results of my labors, but I’ll never forget the sight of the enormous, black and white, scary-looking spiders that lived in the plants and created zigzag designs on their webs. In fact, those spiders, with their artistic web creations, inspired my interest in bugs and shaped my career in science."
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?
Organize what you've written according to cause and effect and action and reaction. Ordering events according to cause and effect is a natural process. Your car broke down, so you called a tow truck. That's cause and effect. You received a promotion, so you bought a house. Action/reaction happens paragraph by paragraph. He said "No," so you said "Why?" That's action/reaction. She set a wet glass on the table, so you placed a coaster under it, and remembered how your mother used to crochet pretty little coasters and starch them. That's action/reaction.
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.
Autobiographies are often confused with memoirs. An autobiography is the inspiring story of a person’s entire life and the societal setting thereof, while memoirs have a narrower focus on the narration of a particular span of time within the subject’s lifetime. It mostly deals with individual’s memories, feelings and emotions. Memoirs are generally much shorter in length because they tend to concentrate on a particular theme rather than the entire life of the person. If you’re interested in writing a memoir, this is a great course to check out.
Develop a central theme, main idea or thesis that clearly explains the purpose behind your autobiography. For example, your theme might be about how you overcame obstacles to become a stronger person, or it might explain why a particular passion -- such as mountain climbing or rescuing animals -- is so important to you. Back your theme with details and background information about your life experiences. For example, you might explain that your dad is in the military, so you've had to learn how to adapt quickly to new schools and unfamiliar environments. Or, you might discuss what it was like growing up in a poor, single-parent home, but how your family was always willing to take in injured or stray pets.