The end is closer than you think! Whether you’re 50, 70, or 90 – you are one day closer to your death. If you don’t write the most important story of your life now, then when? These ten tips will help you start writing your life story and stay writing until you reach the end. My first tip is from John Irving, the next five are from am memoir-writing book called Writing the Memoir, and the rest are from my own experience writing and publishing Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back.
“If the charm of memoir is that we, the readers, see the author struggling to understand her past, then we must also see the author trying out opinions she may later shoot down, only to try out others as she takes a position about the meaning of her story,” writes Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. “The memoirist need not necessarily know what she thinks about her subject but she must be trying to find out; she may never arrive at a definitive verdict, but she must be willing to share her intellectual and emotional quest for answers.”
Write your life story as if you don’t know how things will turn out. Your life isn’t over, after all! You may have memories of the past, but you don’t know how your life will end. Writing your life story has to involve elements of mystery and surprise, even curiosity and wonder. Don’t write your memoir for the sole purpose of getting published, or even to be read by your family and friends. Rather, write to find out what you think of your own subject.
How do you start writing the story of your life? One of my favorite books on writing memoirs is Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books. Her memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, was selected as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year” by The Christian Science Monitor. Sarah Jane Freymann is a New York City literary agent who has helped shepherd books onto bestseller lists, mentored fledging writers, and helped authors transform their lives through memoir.
If you hope your life story is published as a book, read Is It Hard to Get an Agent? 15 Tips From the Query Shark.
How to Write the Most Important Story of All: Your Life History
You have to start somewhere, whether you’re writing for the public or your own personal growth. Starting at the beginning of your life – or the beginning of the experience you’re writing about – isn’t necessarily the best place. Instead, start writing at the most emotional, exciting part of the story.
These tips will help you start writing and keep going until you’re all written out…
1. Stop protecting yourself
It’s a natural human tendency to protect yourself. You care about what people think and say about you! This is normal – it’s how you survive this world without getting beaten by bullies or eaten by wolverines. But self-protection and defense isn’t just detrimental to authentic human relationships and connection, it destroys a beautiful life story. Practice the humbling art of being honest, authentic, and real. Also, remember that you are the authority on your own experience.
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.”
2. Expect writing your life story to be uncomfortable, 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.”
When you write your life story, you’ll struggle with self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. Accept this as a natural part of the writing process. 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
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. Some writers call the Unconscious “The Muse.”
“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. Be structured and disciplined. Writing your story is your job in this season of your life
To keep the Muse 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.
Be structured and disciplined. The end is closer than you think, remember? Whether you’re writing your life story as a 50 year old woman, a 20 year old transgendered person, or a 105 year old war veteran you have to dig into the steel core of discipline and routine. Yes, writing your own life story will be tedious and boring sometimes. That’s a sign that you should write in a different direction or even dump that memory. Regardless of how you keep your story exciting, you must keep writing.
6. Reward yourself for writing every day
Choose something small, but memorable, like a chocolate, a cup of coffee, or a cookie – something indulgent but relatively guilt free. This tells the Muse that it’s okay to write your memoir and share your life story. There’s nothing threatening going on. And soon enough, your Unconscious Muse will let go of its defenses and allow the memories keep flowing.
I also recommend writing first thing in the morning (or whenever you rise from the night’s slumber). Get it done! An hour of concentrated writing time before breakfast will keep your energy flowing and the Muse active. You’ll also have memories and experiences burbling around in your brain for the rest of the day, which will keep your stories fresh and alive.
If you think you aren’t the right “type” to write your life story, read Is a Writer’s Personality the Key to Getting Published?
7. Write “alone” in the company of other writers
Writing can be a lonely, unrewarding, even boring process – even for professional writers like me. I love to write, I make my living as a blogger, and I can’t imagine having any other job. And yet writing can be difficult, painful, and frustrating. Like any job or worthwhile undertaking, writing the story of your life will not be easy. But it will be worth it.
Many writers find it helpful to join a writers’ group online or in person. Explore the options in your area. You don’t need a huge group, and they don’t necessarily need to be writing their own life histories. Any in-person or online writing group can motivate and inspire you to write regularly. They can also help you sharpen your writing skills.
If a writers group doesn’t exist in your area, read 7 Tips for Starting a Writers’ Group.
8. Allow yourself to grieve – especially if you read your old diaries
Unexpected emotions will arise when you write your life story. You may experience release, recovery, resolution, renewal. You might even break down for a day…or a month. I was emotionally exhausted while writing Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back. It’s not an autobiography, but it does contain snippets of my life story. I read my old journals and diaries from 30 years ago; I discovered that my mother was far more abusive than I actually remember! I learned stuff about myself and my mom by reading my childhood diaries and writing about my adult life…and I had to grieve the family and childhood I never had.
9. Expect your writing to change how you remember your life
“A word of warning here,” writes Barrington in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. “The events as you remember them will never be the same in your memory once you have turned them into a memoir. For years I have worried that if I turn all of my life into literature, I won’t have any real life left – just stories about it. And it is a realistic concern: it does happen like that. I am no longer sure I remember how it felt to be twenty and living in Spain after my parents died; my book about it stands now between me and my memories. When I try to think about that time, what comes to mind most readily is what I wrote.”
Nevertheless, the story of your life is a special gift for your family members – and the world! Don’t let your story die when you do. Write, share, and pass alone what you have seen and learned. If you don’t, who will?
10. Learn from experienced memoirists and life story writers
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.
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?