Has someone proudly given you a copy of their life story to read which, instead of being full of interesting, humorous or moving tales, bored you rigid?
What do you say to the author as she gazes expectantly into your face for signs of approval and delight? Here are 13 tips on how to write a fascinating life story.
Identify the people you hope will read the final story. Are you writing your life story to leave as a legacy for future family generations? Perhaps you want to write a memoir to publish and sell to the general public? Identifying your intended readers is the first and most important part of preserving your life story. If it is aimed at family members, you can write a more open story, including some family secrets or explanations of why/how certain events occurred because your family will have ‘prior knowledge’ of some aspects of your story. This is your chance to set the record straight.
Do the research first. Draw up a checklist to establish and identify the facts and points you want to include in your story, then decide who has the documents, photos, memorabilia etc you need to borrow or talk to. Getting the facts straight before you start is much easier than trying to correct mistakes later on. Scan and digitise the photos etc. before returning them to their owner/s as it is much easier to have them on hand in this format, even if you don’t eventually use all of them.
Decide which family members you need to interview. Start by making an appointment to see the relative in their own home and then explain that you are in the process of gathering, organising and preserving your personal/family stories. Talk about some of the family stories your interviewee has knowledge of and put him/her at ease by giving them 3 – 4 weeks to mull over various family stories before you return to interview.
Achieve a ‘person specific’ interview. I use a ‘thought association’ process called Memory Cards to achieve this type of interview which provides the information I require from the interviewee and doesn’t waste either their or my time by asking needless questions about areas of their life that they have no interest in talking about. Try it yourself by leaving a series of file cards, each headed by a relevant topic eg Vehicles or First Married Home.
Decide on the sequence of the story. Not everyone wants to start their story with the day they were born! I have found that many folk don’t want to talk about certain stages of their life and perhaps want to start their story with a specific event or ‘cross roads’ decision, eg. starting a new job, moving to a new country/state/city. It is their story and you should respect their feelings by encouraging them to be involved with the sequence of where their story starts and ends and the various high or low spots along the way.
Zoom in to illustrate key events. No-one wants to read a dull story written like a summary or report – it’s a quick way to ‘turn off’ your reader. Why not borrow a technique from Hollywood and add in some dramatic moments from your life? Revive some of those sad, funny, poignant or just plain scary moments from your past and re-create the conversations, emotions and behaviour as you remember them.
‘Show’ don’t ‘Tell’ your story. “Don’t just say that you love me – show me!” Actions speak louder than words and this principle is as important in writing as it is in relationships. Too many stories read as being dull and boring because their authors spend too much time ‘telling.’ When you summarise and generalise, you drain the life out of your stories, thereby missing out on the chance to engage your readers with a compelling narrative: you also keep them at arm’s length.
Making a scene. Ideally your story will contain both scenes and exposition (or summary writing). You can’t make every event in your life a scene unless you want to write an extremely long book. Select key events that lend themselves to making a scene. Then use expositive writing to link the scenes together, to provide background information and to summarise an expanse of time.
Moving between scenes and exposition. How do you do this without confusing your reader? Use transition words or sentences to communicate the shift such as these:
- I can remember the day when….
- Then there was the time I….
- I’ll never forget one incident….
- This is best illustrated by….
Theme – it’s the life in your story. Underlying all of your writing is the theme: the message, the global way you understand your own life story – either in its entirety or in its parts. The theme conveys the essence of you (or them) that you want the reader (and history) to know and understand. The theme provides spirit to your writing, the breath of life at makes your story uniquely yours.
Perspective. When you commence writing your story, you may not be aware of the meanings and values contained within the story you tell, but you certainly know them somewhere in your mind or heart (or else you wouldn’t have the desire to write them down). The task therefore is not to assign value and meaning to the story, but to uncover and reveal the values expressed.
Stay focused on your story. Have you imagines yourself handing over a beautiful, leather bound book to your family, containing all of your treasured memories? Instead, maybe you have found yourself faced with an ever-growing collection of both finished and partially completed stories, photos and ‘stuff’. Slow down! Start to enjoy the writing process. Re-read the manuscript often and don’t hesitate to move things around – pages, chapters, or perhaps just a different phrase. A good analogy is making a curry – taste, adjust the seasoning, add a touch more chilli (or salt etc) and keep it slowly simmering over a gentle heat for many hours to make it taste wonderful! Let others have a small taste and ask their opinion. You get the idea…….
Write regularly. Commit yourself to a regular writing pattern and stick to it religiously! Negotiate with family and friends about your writing commitment, asking for their patience, understanding and support. However, don’t hide behind your writing to escape from your share of the chores as this will only lead to resentment. Joining a writing group can also help you to stick to your writing commitment as fellow writers can provide you with the support to stay true to your project.
Need Help or Want to Find Out More? Let me know.