Write Your Life Story

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Sep 17, 2012

Family historians do an amazing job of gathering facts about lives lived long ago. But sometimes we neglect to document the life stories we know best: our own. A life lived today may not seem like real history, but it will be to future generations. In fact, our autobiographical records--rich with honesty and relatively recent memories--can be the most valuable genealogical writing we do.

When approaching a life-story writing project, you'll likely consider several questions:

What do you want to cover? Meaning, do you want to write about your entire life or just hit the highlights? A full autobiography is a noble and attainable but ambitious goal. It's taken a lifetime to live all those experiences: it will take a while to write about them. Choose this option only if you have a lot of time and commitment to the project. Otherwise, you'll risk running out of time and energy before you complete the project--meaning you might leave the most important events and relationships unwritten.

Whether you choose a partial or full autobiography, I suggest one of two general approaches:

  1. Use a systematic list of life-story journaling prompts like those you at StoryCorps or in my book, My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories (Family Tree Books). A list of questions can keep you on-topic and help you pace yourself. You can skim through the questions and begin with those that capture your most important or freshest memories. The downside of using a list is that even the most thorough may not completely capture your unique life. (My Life & Times has add-your-own sections for unique memories; if you use a different list, make sure your best experiences get written about.)
  2. Start writing your stories on your own: one anecdote, life lesson or relationship at a time. Again, begin with the most meaningful. Eventually you may organize these writings into chapters or sections in a book. The advantage of this approach is that you can totally customize the content. The disadvantage is that you might skip important stories without a list of questions to jog and organize your memories.

How will you remember everything? You won't--especially at first--and that's okay. Early childhood memories are almost always few and vague. Give yourself permission to describe incomplete or representative memories from your earliest years.

The process of remembering is like a snowball rolling downhill: it starts small and picks up a lot of mass on its way. Maybe you start by thinking about the first home or apartment you lived in. At first you recall the smell of the closet and the view out the kitchen window. Gradually you remember the time you fell down the cement stairs, your grandma's frequent visits and your dad's repeated attempts to fix the plumbing. Each of these memories in turn spurs new ones. The closet smell reminds you that you used to lean against the snow pants and skis in the back of the closet when your parents argued. The skis and snow pants remind you of....see? Snowball effect.

What kind of documentation will you provide? Genealogists are used to the idea of citing their sources. Your major source in autobiographical writing is your own memory. You don't need to cite it. Readers will take it for granted.

But you may rely on other sources like journals, yearbooks, other people's memories or local histories. You can cite these in the same ways you cite your genealogical information: with footnotes and/or a mention in the text, like: "My second-grade report card shows I was strongest in math...." You can also just list sources consulted at the end, though this won't link any specific information with the source you got it from.

Who do I hope will read my stories? Many family historians just write for their loved ones--and that's fine! They want to share lessons learned, faith lived and tough times conquered. What if up-and-coming generations don't seem interested in your life story? It's still worth writing. Somebody will care in the future--maybe after you've gone. Sometimes interest skips a generation: grandchildren will take more interest than their parents, who may be absorbed by mid-life responsibilities.

If you're considering publishing your life story for a wider audience, good for you! More people than ever--both famous and non-famous--publish their memoirs these days. Publishing a well-written book is a professional skill, so learn and practice it. Take creative nonfiction writing classes like those offered by Writer's Digest Online. Read books like How to Write Your Own Life Story by Lois Daniel (Chicago Review Press), Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach (Writer's Digest) and--for advanced writers--Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer (Tarcher). Write lots of drafts and work with a local writer's workshop, if you can.

How do I make it interesting and fun to read? The books I just mentioned offer lots of tips for improving your writing. If you're very serious about the quality of your writing (even just for relatives), read those. But most people can make their writing more appealing by following these tips:

  • Be honest. Readers want to know both your flaws and strengths. I'm not saying to confess all your secrets in too-much-information detail. You have the right to privacy. But whatever you do write about, tell the whole story, including your relevant less-than-perfect behaviors or thoughts. Honesty doesn't usually lose you any respect. In fact, it often gains reader trust and respect. Readers don't trust a perfect narrator--they all know that nobody is perfect, and they assume you're holding out on them.
  • Be sure every story has a point. Readers want to know what your experiences and relationships mean to you. How have they shaped your attitudes, choices, values and tastes? You may have to ask yourself that question as you write. Often you'll realize surprising answers. Discovery--not just remembering--is a normal part of the life-story writing process. Allow yourself time to evaluate your life as you write.
  • Write like you talk. Many people, when they sit down to write, suddenly become very formal. You might say in conversation, "Mom died when I was 13, and it blew every chance I had of a normal teenage life." Yet when you go to write about it, it might come out, "My beloved mother passed away when I was a young person of 13 years...." Scrap the embellishments. Your writing should sound so much like you that your loved ones can hear your voice in their minds as they read. If you can't write conversationally, record yourself telling the story and then type it up. It's worth the extra effort.
  • Use well-chosen anecdotes and details. Going back to the example of the 13-year old who lost her mother, what stories would best illustrate that experience? Choosing acne medication alone at the pharmacy? Having to invite a neighbor to the Mother's Day tea at school? The details you choose in these anecdotes can bring them to life. Were you trying to figure out whether .5% or 1.0% benzoyl peroxide would be best for your acne? Did the neighbor have a hushed, pitying drawl in her voice that you hated?
  • Edit and proofread. Poor spelling and bad punctuation are distracting. If you're not a proof-reading type, have an honest friend do it for you. Your writing doesn't need to be perfect. But do make it as good as possible.

What should I do about other people's secrets? Our lives intersect with other lives, sometimes in messy ways. Every family historian should respect others' privacy. But the stories of our lives sometimes can't be told truthfully without disclosing someone else's addiction, infidelity, dishonesty or other private matter. My personal opinion is that when someone else's secret affects us deeply, we have the right to reveal it. That doesn't mean I always do: ideally I will consult with that person and/or that person's loved ones and see how much pain it may cause. That will heavily influence what I say and how much detail I use to say it.

How will I present or publish my life story? These days, you have lots of options. Most of us, writing just for family, will self-publish in one way or another. We'll print out and photocopy our stories, maybe bind them at a copy center. Some of us will blog our life stories or otherwise publish them on-line. We might just create pdf documents and email them to loved ones as attachments. For a higher-quality result, we can use print-on-demand publishers, which specialize in small print runs of self-published materials.

If you want to publish a traditional book, identify publishers that accept memoir, personal history, or creative nonfiction from a current version of Writer's Market (in your public library's reference section). Follow submission instructions exactly. Hocking a book for publication is not for the faint of heart, and it can take years to find the right fit, if you do. Keep in mind your primary goal--is it sharing your life with your loved ones? You don't need to publish a book to do that!

The bottom line: there's no one way to write your life story, just like there's no one way to live your life. Do what gets the job done. Your family history is incomplete without your history. Just write it!


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