Get Started Writing Your Life Story
9/28/2009
Your descendants will be thrilled with whatever you choose to record.
Before you start putting memories down on paper, think about what type of life story you want to write. An "autobiography" covers your whole life; a "memoir" focuses on a few key themes and important years of your life.

In autobiography, you not only record your life story, but also add facts and explanations about historical topics that affected you. For example, you might write about the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and what you were doing when you heard the news. First, you need to fact check and make sure you've got the right date. Then, to broaden the scope of the story, you would research newspaper articles to see how and why this event rocked an entire nation. Finally, you would tell how it affected you.

A memoir focuses more tightly on a slice of your personal experiences. Suppose you're a baby boomer who, as a teen in the early 1970s, wore love beads and bell bottoms and protested the Vietnam War. Your memoir might cover just that decade in your life—the theme being coming of age in the '70s—and include not only your experiences, but examples of what being a "typical" teenager in the 1970s was like.

As in fiction, characters in a memoir must grow and change, which usually springs from conflicts or problems. Discuss these as part of your story. Discuss decisions you have made and why. Include details that led to resolutions and decisions. Reflect on your past; don't just record it.

If you're not up to tackling a book-length autobiography or memoir, you could start writing your life story as a collection of short-story-length memoirs or essays—like that school paper you wrote on what you did on your summer vacation. Each essay should have an independent theme, focusing on one event or experience in your life. Your ultimate collection may have a common connecting thread, or each may represent a stand-alone experience.

To help prod your memory or to select themes and topics for essays, use guidebooks on oral history interviewing, taking one question at a time from the book to write about. A good book for this approach is William Fletcher's Recording Your Family History. Fletcher breaks down events in a person's life by age, with subtopics, such as "the first time you saw your spouse," followed by specific questions:
  • Do you remember the first time you ever saw your wife/husband—the very first time your eyes met?
  • Do you remember the first time you talked to each other?
  • Do you remember what you talked about?
  • Did you have any idea at that time how your relationship would develop?
  • What did you think of him/her at first?
Flip through such a list, find a topic that intrigues you, then write about it using the questions to get started. This collection of essays can be simply that: an assortment of short life stories you keep in a three-ring notebook. You can arrange them in chronological order or thematically. Or you can buy a blank journal book and record your essays there.

If you keep a diary, you can include your stories as part of it. If you don't already keep a diary, consider it as an alternative to writing essays, autobiography or a memoir. A diary or journal doesn't have to be a day-by-day account of your activities; your diary can be whatever you want it to be. Your descendants will be thrilled with whatever you choose to record.
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