I was born on August 19,1933 …” Yawn. Mind wanders. Go to kitchen and look for something to eat. Sit back down at computer. “…my mother’s name was Rose Norton; my father was Paul Franklin …” Squirm in seat. Memories of having to write about summer vacations in grade school come flooding back. Check e-mail. Return to word processor. “My earliest childhood memory is …” Suddenly realize that it will take forever to record the past 66 years. And who would want to read it, anyway? Shut down computer. Turn on TV. Get more snacks.
Ever have this problem? Me, too. And I have only 42 years to write about. But I bet my 16-year-old daughter would have the same problem. Why does writing your life story have to be so overwhelming?
Or does it? If more people realized there are other ways of getting their life story on paper, more would probably do it. And more of their descendants would be thrilled that they did. For example, how does this life-story opening grab you:
My aunt used to tie me occasionally to the clothesline. We lived on a main street, and my aunt didn’t want me to go out into the street. The clothesline went the full length of the backyard. It ran from a window in the back of the house to a big tree, where the playhouse and swing were. My brother and sister were at school, so Aunt Emily used to tie me to the clothesline, and I could run around in the backyard. One day a dog came along and started chasing me. He thought I was playing because I was running back and forth. I hollered for my aunt, and she came out and got me. I was scared to be tied after that.
Not only is this more fun to read, it’s also more fun to write. Writing the story of your life — or your parents’ or grandparents’ — doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be enjoyable, entertaining and cathartic for you and your readers.
Your life may not seem like anything anyone would want to read about. No doubt most of our ancestors felt the same way about their lives. But if they had written an autobiography or memoir, wouldn’t you be thrilled to be able to read it today? Remember, there is only one you who’ll ever walk this earth, and no one will ever be able to tell your life story better than you.
People record their life events for many reasons, including:
- to leave a record for their descendants
- to re-live pleasant events of the past
- to resolve painful experiences
- to tell a story
Whatever your reasons, they are valid. Writing your life story is one of the most rewarding and important things you can do. And there will be someone who will be delighted you did. Remember what Clarence, the angel, said in It’s a Wonderful Life? “Strange, isn’t it, how a man’s life touches so many other lives? When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” You have touched innumerable lives over the years, and those you have touched will want to read your story.
Autobiography vs. Memoir
Before you start putting memories down on paper, though, 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 Tour 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.
What to Include, What to Leave Out
Even if you choose to write your life story as autobiography, that doesn’t mean you have to account for every second of every day of your life. Not only is that overwhelming for you and the reader; it would be boring. This may be one reason to choose writing memoir over autobiography or to write your life story as a collection of essays: You can skip the more routine aspects of your life. On the other hand, you don’t want to completely ignore your daily routines; this gives your readers and descendants a taste of your everyday life, which is also important and part of your story.
A tougher decision is how intimate to make your narrative — what private things to put in, what to leave out. This, of course, is up to you and how comfortable you feel with exposing personal matters. (Personally, I’d include everything, no matter how intimate — but I wouldn’t want it published until long after my death!)
When you’re trying to decide, think about your likely audience. Of course, it will probably be family members, but it may also include others reading your story as an example of how to write their own narrative, future generations and even social historians studying daily life. While you can’t satisfy all your readers, keep in mind that your life story will be a contribution to history one day It is through the surviving memoirs, letters and diaries of people of the past that we know today how they dressed, thought and behaved.
Another aspect of writing your life story is the inclusion of friends and family None of us lives on a desert island. We come in contact with people daily many of whom are close to us and affect our lives. Your life story would be incomplete and inaccurate if you didn’t mention and include them. Though you can write about your life in as much detail as you want, writing about someone else’s as part of your story may infringe on that person’s privacy It is always best to run the sections by the people about whom you’ve written and get their permission, prefrrablv in writing.
“Open your story with one of the happiest, most memorable, unusual or exciting events in your life.”
Where Do You Start?
While it seems logical to begin your life story with the day you were born, that’s exactly what makes the task seem overwhelming. Instead, try the flashback writing technique so common in novels: start in the middle of the story then use flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Open your story with one of the happiest, most memorable, unusual or exciting events in your life; it could be the day your first child was born, your first kiss, that big break on the job, or the day you got divorced.
As with any writing, you need to grab readers’ attention right from the start. Look at these reader-grabbing memoir openings:
I now want to claim Chokio. In elementary school, when my third-grade teacher asked as what nationality we were, we knew what she meant. Hands flew in the air as we acknowledged our heritage — part German, part Swedish, part Ojibway, part Irish. All of our ancestors had come from another country or another culture, and we claimed them as a way to define ourselves.Mary Locue, Halfway Home: A Granddaughter’s Biography
Whenever a telephone rings late at night or at an odd time of day, I still — even now that Frances has been dead for almost a decade — think someone is calling to say that my mother has taken her life. I grew up with stories of women who wanted to die. My mother’s grandmother jumped from a window in Vienna at the end of the 19 th century. My mother’s mother repeatedly threatened to commit suicide in Prague. My mother locked herself inside the bathroom in New York, saying she had had enough, that she could not go on.Helen Epstein, Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story
Each author picked interesting or unusual aspects of her life to start the narrative and to plunge the reader into the story. These openings also give readers clues as to what the story will be about.
Both of these openings are examples from what I call “family-history memoir.” Mary Logue’s story discusses her search for her grandmother’s story; Helen Epstein’s is the search for her mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s life stories. The stories are thematic, covering their search for their ancestors, but do not directly deal with the authors themselves. Through the course of their search and telling their ancestors’ stories, however, they learn about themselves and indirectly reveal their self-discovery
Writing Your Parents’ or Grandparents’ Life Stories
Once you get the hang of life-story writing, you may want to immortalize your parents or grandparents on paper, too. Always begin with living relatives, assuming they’re willing to be the focus of a narrative, because their stories will be lost after they are gone. Again, using guides on oral history interviewing to prod you on questions, get as much of the person’s life on tape as you can. Or, if the person likes to write, show them this article and get them started writing their own story.
But writing about living people can be tricky. While you may think that story about your mother walking in on her parents making love is wonderful and adds color to the family history, she may not agree. She may have found the whole incident terribly embarrassing, and thought she was telling you about it in confidence. Though I doubt your mom would sue you if you printed the story, you should certainly respect her wishes and not include anything she would not want you to include.
Remember, you don’t own a person’s memories. This isn’t journalism: Even though the person consented to an interview and told you deep, dark secrets, that doesn’t mean you should print them. To keep peace, always let the person about whom you are writing read it first and get that person’s permission to publish or circulate it among other family members.
When writing life stories about family members, also remember to put them into historical context. If Grandpa tells you about his experiences in World War II, include general information about the war and what other soldiers like your grandfather experienced. If Grandma grew a Victory Garden and redeemed ration coupons, research and write about what those were and why they were important. If your dad recalls the blackout shades on his bedroom window during the war, tell the reader why that was significant. Putting memories into context this way is what makes someone’s life story valuable to an audience beyond family members.
You can get a sense of past times by looking at old magazines and newspapers; most large libraries have back issues on microfilm or in a special section. Categorize your life or your parents’ and grandparents’ into topics, then search for books with background on each topic. For example, my paternal grandmother was an emigrant from Italy in 1910. I’ve just categorized her: “an emigrant from Italy in 1910.” I’ll now look for books that will tell me what it was like to be an emigrant from Italy in the early twentieth century. She also came to this country through Ellis Island, so I’ll look for books on immigrant processing there. To learn what the community in America was like where she and her family settled, I can read local newspapers or town and county histories. When I write her story and blend this general information with her specific experience, it will broaden the narrative and make it more interesting to read.
Handling Sensitive Issues
Historical context will also help you write about sensitive issues. When I began interviewing my mother to write her life story, I knew there were aspects of her life she might be reluctant to talk about. Social histories, such as Brett Harvey’s The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History, which discusses the everyday lives of ordinary housewives in the 1950s, helped me frame my questions.
Knowing that my parents’ divorce was a sensitive topic, for instance, it helped to have the background knowledge that many women who married in the 1950s were unhappy and that a quarter to a third of the marriages of the ’50s ended in divorce. Now I was able to preface my question to her about divorce with, “I’ve been reading that many marriages of the 1950s ended in divorce….” When it came time to write her story, I interwove these general, typical experiences with her personal story: Rather than making her divorce seem unique, by placing it in historical context, it became part of the norm for that time in history.
When discussing premarital sex, to save us both from discomfort and potential embarrassment, I phrased the question in a non-personal way I asked, “Do you know what young women of your day did for birth control if they had sex before they married?” This way, she could answer without revealing directly whether or not she engaged in premarital sex.
Not all the answers on sensitive issues may be pleasant ones, and that’s OK. Like life, the chronicle of your life story doesn’t have to wind up happily ever after.
Getting Motivated and Finding Time
So do I practice what I preach? Have I written an autobiography or memoir? No, not yet. But I have faithfully kept a diary since I was nine. Though I plan one day to write personal and family-history memoirs, I figure if I never get around to it, at least my descendants will know me through my diaries.
We all make time for things that are important to us. Recording your life story, no matter which method you choose, is probably one of the most important things you can do — for yourself and for your descendants. Set aside a few hours each week (or more frequently) to devote to your life story.
If you need motivation and prodding, many community colleges and continuing education programs offer courses on life story writing, some as correspondence courses. (Writer’s Digest School, for example, offers a home-study workshop to help you research, organize and write your personal or family history with the step-by-step guidance of a published writer. For information, call 800-759-0963, or e-mail email@example.com.) If you have trouble finding a class that’s right for you, consider starting a life story writing group. Even if it’s just you and another person getting together once a month to read and offer suggestions on each other’s narrative, this can be a great motivator.
However you choose to record your life, the important thing is that you do it. You owe it to yourself — and to those who come after you. Remember the golden rule of family history: Leave for your descendants what you wish your ancestors had left for you. They’ll want to know your story and no one can tell your life story better than you.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.