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.
Have you ever read an autobiography? Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for example, is an exceptionally powerful one. “DEAR SON: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” That’s how it starts. But, Benjamin Franklin was an exceptional person, after all. That’s the point: autobiographies are for exceptional people. You’re exceptional, too. You have a special story that’s worth sharing. The only thing to learn is how to write a life story about yourself.
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.
This guest post is by Richard Campbell. Campbell is co-author of Writing Your Legacy – The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story, published worldwide in July 2015 by Writer’s Digest Books. Richard teaches Legacy Writing to adult learners in Ontario, Canada, as well as to guests on board transatlantic crossings with a major cruise line. He is passionate about life story writing and has guested on several Top 50 U.S. radio stations. He would love to hear from you and can be reached at email@example.com.
The childhood story. Whether your childhood was happy or traumatic, you should include a few anecdotes that give a picture of who you were and what you experienced at the time. You can tell the story of your childhood by breaking it down into smaller anecdotes that illustrate your personality - your parents' reaction when you brought home a stray dog, the time you climbed out of the window at school and ran away for 3 days, your friendly relationship with a homeless person living in the woods . . . get creative.
“Talking about the past can have a healing function, but what we find is that talk, literally, is cheap,” Dr Hunter says. “We speak words and they fly away before we’ve faced what it is they convey. This is not the case with the written word. Writers find themselves saying, ‘ I never really thought about it before’ or ‘ I never saw it this way until I started to write it’.
This is an extremely emotional and intimate type of writing. You share a personal experience with your readers in a detailed manner. Your audience should have an opportunity to see the event or person that you’ve written about through your eyes and understand your feelings. Any personal essay has two main aspects: the description of a particular situation and how it has influenced your worldview and life. Generally, the personal essay is the shortest form of autobiographical writing, along with the essay for college.
Discuss any special circumstances such as obstacles or challenges you've faced, and how you've dealt with them, recommends Xavier University. This is especially important if your autobiography is for a college or scholarship application. For example, you might write about struggles you faced growing up in a multiracial family or how you've learned to live life to the fullest, despite being a diabetic. Your autobiography should be an honest representation of who you are, so avoid embellishments and exaggerations, suggests author and public speaker David Ford. The goal is to help readers understand how events, hardships and experiences have molded you into the person you are today.