The first tip on how to write your life story is from John Irving, the next five are from Writing the Memoir, and the rest are from my research on writing autobiographies, memoirs, and life stories.
For a step-by-step guide on writing the story of your life, read Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. A book like this will keep you focused and motivated to write the most important parts of your autobiography. Not everything is equally important, and you need help determining what is what.
“The fact is that writing, like any creative undertaking, carries with it both pain and great joy,” says Barrington. “The pain is often inherent in the most fertile subject matter; the joy lies in transforming that subject matter and thus moving through it in a way that helps us grow while we create something of value to others.”
Don’t write your life story for the sole purpose of getting published, or for publishing your own ebook. Rather, write from your heart and soul – for the sole purpose of sharing what you’ve seen, smelled, heard, and done. Write your life story for an audience of one: you.
8 Tips for Telling the Story of Your Life
Don’t chase the god of publication. If you want to get published by a magazine or book publisher, your first job is to write the most authentic, real life story possible.
Let publication chase you. And it will – especially if you use the power of storytelling when you write.
1. Be vulnerable and authentic
John Irving said, “If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
When you write your memoirs, you will struggle with self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. Accept this. It’s part of writing your memoirs.
2. Expect writing your life story to be uncomfortable – or even painful
“Talking about the past can have a healing function, but what we find is that talk, literally, is cheap,” Dr Hunter says in How to Write Your Life Story. “We speak words and they fly away before we’ve faced what it is they convey. This is not the case with the written word. Writers find themselves saying, ‘ I never really thought about it before’ or ‘ I never saw it this way until I started to write it’. Writing can slow us down enough so we take notice, and when we write we find the deep truths that we’ve forgotten we knew.”
The most important tip on how to write your life story is that uncovering and sharing the deep truths of your life may be more difficult than you think.
3. Accept whatever comes to you to write
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When you decide to write your life story, you may think you want to write about Uncle Joe, but a series of stories about the farm in New Jersey insist on coming to you first. Write what comes. The Unconscious is wiser than you think it is; if you let it, it will tell you what to write in your memoir, and what to leave out.
“Writing our memories come straight from our most powerful ally, the Unconscious,” says Dr Hunter. “In memoir it is the Unconscious that nudges us towards telling a tale we don’t even understand yet – at least not with our conscious awareness.”
4. Write about a time in your life when something changed
Most people have no trouble identifying these moments of change – the day the family moved away from the neighborhood, the day they realized mom wouldn’t be there to help them raise the twins. Each memory of this sort is valuable because it is attached to an emotion. We wouldn’t recall it if we had no emotional investment.
These memories are also important because they point backwards to what was, and forwards to what was about to happen, with a sense that there was now a new way of seeing these stretches of time. In each memory, there is likely to be a huge gift – each will reflect a theme, possibly a major theme, which will play out in the rest of the writers’ life.
An important tip for writing your life story is to be aware of the effect on the ones you love. Read Tips for Writing Your Memoirs Without Hurting Family Members.
5. Introduce your Unconscious to a regular writing schedule
To keep the Unconscious on your side, you need to set up a regular time to write. Limit it to 15 minutes, no more – at least at first. Fifteen minutes, three times a week, always at the same time and always in the same place. Stay there for all 15 minutes even if you can’t think of anything to write. This will set up a rhythm, in the same way we get hungry at mealtimes whether or not we’re really hungry. This isn’t just about finding time to write your life story. Your Unconscious will get used to this and agree to let out a few more memories, right on cue.
6. Reward yourself for writing your memoir daily
Choose something small, but memorable, like a chocolate, a cup of coffee, or a cookie – something indulgent but relatively guilt free. This tells the Unconscious that it’s okay to write your memoir and share your life story. There’s nothing threatening going on. And soon enough, your Unconscious will let go of its defenses and allow the memories keep flowing.
7. Find the balance between writing alone and writing together
Do you belong to a writers’ group? If not, explore the possibilities in your area. Sometimes writing groups can motivate and inspire you to write regularly, and to keep sharpening your writing skills.
If a writers group doesn’t exist in your area, read 7 Tips for Starting a Writers’ Group.
8. Prioritize writing your life story
“I’m not a therapist,” says teacher and writer Betty Carlton in an article about unfamous people writing their life stories, “but when you write your life stories, you may experience release, recovery, resolution, renewal.”
She adds that the story of your life is a special gift for your family members, and encourages writers not to let their stories die when we do. Pass them on. If you don’t, who will?
May you be disciplined to achieve your daily writing goals, and may you overcome the fear of being vulnerable and honest about your life story. May you connect with your heat and soul, and even your Creator. May your words flow easily, and may this writing project be a blessing to you and others.
If you have any thoughts or tips on how to write your life story, please comment below! Have you tried to write your memoirs? What scares you? What is holding you back? Are you insecure, doubtful, reluctant? Do you have a message from the king? Do you even know who the king is?