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Writing My Life Story
Tips on writing your autobiography or memoirArticle by Tom Gilbert – © January, 2009
A growing number of people have decided to write a life story, autobiography, memoir or personal history. And more are thinking about it. But writing my life story was not a decision I arrived at overnight. Most of us don’t suddenly have an epiphany that our stories must be told. However, once you conclude it is important to preserve your story you are faced with a host of questions, such as how to get started, what the finished product will be, how much will it cost and who will do the work.
In some ways I am writing my life story every day. My thoughts, actions and experiences are forming the memories and life lessons that contribute to the story I share with others. I regularly record in my personal journal the insights from my life and I try to be aware of what’s going on around me.
You might think it a trite cliché, but we really do need to “stop and smell the flowers”. You only have this one life – and you should recognize that each day is a gift. One of the most important lessons any of us will ever learn is that we need to be present to our lives. We need to be alert to our ever unfolding life.
I know it is difficult to keep a sharp awareness at all times. Life is happening…and often circumstances wrap us up and we forget to pay attention. But at the end of the day – every day – you can look back and make note of its significance.
Writing your life story is a combination of reminiscence and evaluation. As you walk through memories you will recall certain events. You’ll remember them in a way that stirs feelings. If you tap into those emotions – the joy, sadness, exhilaration, drudgery, laughter and tears – you will find you are evaluating what those memories mean to you
This process can be cathartic, even therapeutic. But it also can require facing up to some self truth. We like to paint our version of the past, and that can be fine, as long as it isn’t causing harm to others – or to you. What you end up putting down for others to read is ultimately up to you. But I hope that you can be honest with your self. There are some things that perhaps shouldn’t be revealed. Think about them. What do those memories mean to you? And it also helps to consider something else very important.
Motivation Is Key
Writing a life story, an autobiography, a memoir – this can be a big undertaking. Your motivation for doing it will help you stay dedicated to finishing the story. That motivation will come from your primary reason for writing your story.
So first, think hard and long about why you want to tell your story. What is your motivation? Is it to pass on your personal history to your family? Is it to share your views and values? Have you been through some extraordinary experiences, such as great suffering, disease, heartache or spiritual transformation?
Do you desire to be in the spotlight and boast of your accomplishments? (Hey, vanity can be a strong motivator.)
Maybe you hope to just make some sense of your life.
The why of your story is important, so do give it some serious thought.
How you tell your story is another important consideration. Will you start at the beginning (chronological)? Are you going to record your entire life, from childhood to elderly status (autobiography)? Or do you prefer to focus on a specific time or event and what it means to you (memoir)?
There are many ways to tell your story. There are also different ways to present it.
The Point of View
A common approach is you telling us your story from your unique perspective. This is the technique most often used if you are doing the writing, or if you hire a ghost writer. An example:One of my favorite childhood memories was catching my first fish. It took me some time to successfully bait a hook with a writhing and slippery worm. But it was worth it when I finally had a fish bite down hard. He got his worm and I landed my prize – that trout was secure on the end of my line as I wrestled it ashore!
Your story can also be told “about you”. This is typical when you hire another to do the writing. Example: Johnny was remarkable for his resolve. If you dared to argue with him you best have your facts straight because he wasn’t going to admit defeat unless you could prove it five ways from Sunday.
Either way can be fine and both have considerations. If you are telling your story from your perspective you need to be careful not to be too overbearing. Too much use of the “I” word can turn the reader off. Aye-yi-yi.
Also, avoid being preachy. You probably do have some valuable lessons, but if you are telling others how they should live their lives – and implying you know best – people will reject it. Much better is to show how you met life challenges and share your insights and what you’ve learned.
The writer who writes your story in a third-person narrative has to be careful to say what you want them to. It’s not an expose by an aggressive investigative journalist – unless that’s what you want! A good personal history life writer will review the text with you and get your feedback and corrections. But they will also have the ability to bring your story to life in an interesting way, using vivid detail and the insight you share with them.
Start Where You Want
One of my happiest discoveries about writing my life story is that I didn’t have to start at the beginning. Eventually the manuscript will contain the parts of your story you want included, but if it jumpstarts the process to begin with a special recollection then by all means do so. It’s not unusual for writers to work on different parts of their story at different times. This can be stimulating to your memory. You’ll also find the actual process of the writing will inspire and motivate you.
The placement of the parts of your story will most likely be worked out nearer the end of the writing. You certainly can benefit from an outline, but the table of contents might not be finalized until after you’ve recorded your different experiences.
If your story is well-crafted and cohesive, it will have a certain theme. Love lost. Redemption. Perseverance. Gratitude. Note it can, and probably will, have a combination of such themes. However, there should be an umbrella theme that the reader gets from your story. How you arrive at the theme depends again on your motivation, but also on what your story eventually says about you, or what main message you want to convey.
Don’t be surprised if you change your mind about the theme over the course of writing your life story. That can happen as the writing process takes you deeper into the meaning and purpose of your life and story.
Make a Memory List
A great way to organize your thoughts, stir up memories and get ideas for what to include in your story is to create a Memory List. Your goal is to write as many short sentences or phrases about events and life experiences as you can. Don’t worry about writing complete sentences or including a lot of detail. A few words will do the trick. First scout campout. Birth of second child. Told I had cancer. Attended rock concert of my favorite group. Christmas in Australia.
From your list of memories you will eventually sort out the core memories that will play key roles in your story. Some of the memories will be combined as you find similarities. Others might stand alone, even become an entire chapter. And some will get discarded. You want to have an extensive list. It will take more than one sitting. Keep your memory list in a three-ring binder and refer to it regularly, recording more memories as they occur to you.
It’s Your Life Story, So Own It!
story is your own. Take time to prepare for it.
Consider the tips and suggestions in this article. Talk to
someone you trust to help you flesh it out. Even if you
do the writing yourself it is helpful to have a writing coach or
For additional information on how Tom Gilbert can help you with your life story visit the Get Started page.
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