“Never make a firm judgment about people whose entire life story you do not know!”
But it isn’t possible to know people’s life stories unless they themselves tell them.
Most of us think our life stories are plain boring. We are led to believe that a book on life stories needs to be something exotic and have an element of accomplishment. You would be surprised to know that most people read life stories they can relate to. Life stories of celebrities do get a lot of attention. However, life story books written by ordinary people doing ordinary things are just as interesting.
Each one of us has a legacy to leave behind. Legacies that haven’t necessarily touched a billion lives. Your legacy may be on a modest scale. It may have deeply impacted a few people. Your example may have changed or affected the select few around you. Writing your story can impact people who may not even know you; people may find solutions to their problems or feel motivated by reading your story.
But where do you begin to write this unique story of yours? Your life story is different from anyone else’s -it deserves to be told in an exclusive way.
Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir
Before you jump into writing pages after pages of memories, let’s get a few terminologies straight. All three terminologies mean life stories but differ in the width of stories and perspective of writing. An autobiography and biography differ in the perspective of writing; the latter is written by a professional writer for other people. An autobiography is written by the subject himself.
An autobiography or biography covers portions of a person’s life, detailing different aspects and how events affected them. A memoir covers a slice of the person’s life, which is dissected and explained. For example, in an autobiography, you might write about your school, college and university life and how each stage was relevant to getting you to your dream enterprise. In a memoir, you may want to focus on your struggling years after university, detailing how a “typical” entrepreneurial struggle led up to an empire worth billions.
Making the Truth Stand Out
Writing your life story can be a challenging task. You may be tempted to add bits and pieces to your story that make you seem like a hero and others like dark, villainous characters out of the Joker movie. Avoid painting pictures in black and white- simply because real life is rarely black and white, and there may be many shades of grey. Instead, try showing good and bad choices made by people that add to more complex portraits of people.
Tips to Get it Right
Remember, there is no one size fits all strategy; you may feel like you don’t need to follow some of these tips, so feel free to skip what you already know. However, we suggest you read them once to get the hang of the writing process:
1. Free-write about your life or get a journal
If you are someone who writes a diary daily, you probably have a bunch of stories about your everyday life jotted down somewhere tucked safely. All you need to do is take those diaries out and connect the stories.
Conversely, if diaries haven’t been your thing, you can start writing about life events from today. Get a journal and write all the stories you can think of. You can opt to free-write or write one complete story at a time. Take a few minutes to a few hours each day to write, focusing on one memory. You don’t need awesome writing skills to jot down your stories; just enough to write about key events and memories you want to include. Once the stories are down, they will be used to build a non-fiction narrative.
2. Decide how you want to organize your story- form an outline
Your memories need some form of coherence for better understanding. There is no strict rule for organizing your life story. Most people follow the chronological order of events, but again, it is your life, and to you, it may seem more appropriate to organize events by theme or from present to past. The choice is yours. The events need an organization that allows easy reading and avoids haphazard storytelling.
3. Decide your genre and theme
Themes make it easy for your readers to relate and engage with your book. You could look at all the events you want to incorporate into your book and determine if a theme is dominant.
This will eventually lead you to identify the genre of your book. Your book will identify as an autobiography or a memoir, but it may also fit nicely in other categories. This will help you market your book more effectively. For example, Taste: My life through Food by Stanley Tucci also fits nicely under Culinary Biographies and Rich & Famous Biographies as it does under Memoirs.
4. Decide what you want to leave out
Look through all the stories you have scribbled down and narrow down on what you want to include. If you are going for an autobiography, your scope will allow for more stories while a memoir will be a narrower scope with more details.
While writing a memoir about your life in the 90s, you may not want to include the stories about the 80s and 70s. However, you may want to add more depth to your stories about the 90s to bring more vibrancy and relevance to the memoir.
On the other hand, if you have a biography of your life as a footballer, your story about how you got kicked out of class for defying your teacher and what it made you feel may not be relevant.
5. Get friends and family to add to your story
With time our memories tend to get muddled. You may forget the correct order of events or the timeline of events. Ask your close friend, just friends and family to help you get the facts right. They might even give you a perspective and provide details you hadn’t thought about before. You will be surprised how concrete your story will end up looking.
While writing, if you are stuck and don’t seem to recall a memory correctly, mark it for further reference and complete your writing. This way, you get to complete your story faster. You can also get quotes from friends and family to enhance memories you are sure about.
6. Take out old photos and use them to add to your story
Old photos have a knack for reviving vivid imagery. This is great when you are writing your life story. If you happen to have old video recordings, it is even better.
The emotions and gestures will help you remember the tiniest details from particular events. You will remember how the weather was, what clothes people were wearing, what shade the curtains were, and details you may otherwise have forgotten.
It is a good idea to dig up some photos (or movies) from your attic or storage and see what memories they trigger.
7. Write your first draft
Now that you have all the basic work completed, it’s time to start working on your first draft. Your first draft will be long, winded and probably very unfinished.
However, keep the following in mind while writing:
- Your readers will feel engaged if they can feel the emotions you add to the book. You can do this if you can make them cry, laugh, feel sad, surprise them shock them etc. Adding adequate emotions via appropriate adjectives and adverbs in the right places will keep your readers hooked to your book.
- Adding dialogue to your book can make it sound real. However, the challenge may be to recall the exact dialogue from days gone by; unless you had the dialogue recorded. Dialogues are written in the same way as are written for fictional books.
- Engage your reader from the first word. A good life story book draws in the reader from page one, even if the story is dark and bleak. Introduce something interesting to your reader in the first few pages. Opening with a dramatic moment is one way to do it.
- Your reader needs to trust you to keep reading your book. Tell your story as though you are sharing a deep secret only the reader is privy to.
- Although your book is completely non-fiction, it’s a story. Use elements of storytelling to make it compelling. You are the main character of your book, build a setting, create a plot, find a conflict and an ending. Your reader will be compelled to follow a story that has familiar elements.
- Perfection is obsolete. Either you can tell your life story or keep going back to each part and making it perfect. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation. There will be plenty of time (and resources) to correct that. Write your story without going back to edit it.
- Humour and wisdom both add flavour to your story. Use both to let your personality shine through your writing. There may be so many things people can learn from your life story- the best way to convey it is through humour.
8. How to handle sensitive issues?
Not everyone wants to write books on the rosy parts of their lives. Many people choose to focus and bring to light the unpleasant parts of their lives, and this is where it can become difficult to write and listen to such stories.
As a rule of thumb, if you are listening in the capacity of a biographer, frame questions indirectly to avoid creating awkward situations for the subject. For example, if your subject was a victim of rape and they want to include this detail in their book, you may want to frame questions around the incident giving them room to decide how far they want to disclose about it.
Books on difficult topics tend to receive significant backlash from the media also. For example, books with ableist descriptions may receive backlash from the autistic community, or the African American community may not like the usage of demeaning language in books creating media uproar.
Such sensitive issues need to be handled with care and precision. Most can be handled by choosing different words and appropriate language.
9. Write for the readers
It is your story, and you alone are the hero. But like any other fiction book out there, you are writing for your reader who will pick up the book in a bookshop or online, check the first few pages and make a quick decision.
You may want to employ fiction-writing techniques or focus on one segment of your audience for a better response. Further along, developing a balance between telling and showing will help your readers relate to your story better. Even if you aim to write a story about trauma or a trying life, make sure you detach from the story and narrate it as a person inviting people to learn rather than venting their problems through a book.
10. End your book
If you think starting a book was a daunting task, wait until you get to the mid and lose steam. It is very common for writers of any genre to get discouraged and get demotivated. The reason for this may be simple boredom, familiarity with the topic, or just no excitement in continuing to write the stories.
Your book about your life is something you will be proud of completing despite its familiarity. You can enroll in life story writing courses offered at community colleges to boost your motivation. The environment will keep you on track and help you research and organize your work more efficiently. On the other hand, you can start a group of writers writing memoirs or autobiographies like yourself. You can get together monthly or fortnightly and offer suggestions on each other’s narratives.
As soon as you finish your book, take a break to gain perspective. Take a week off from writing. Relax and do something else or travel for a while.
Proofread your first draft.
Once you are back to writing. You will be looking for:
- Grammatical errors
- Weak narrative
At this point, you will not be required to perform extensive edits to your book. You will need to correct what you feel doesn’t sit right. Create short notes where you feel more information needs to be added.
12. Refine it
Once your first proofreading is done, you can proceed to refine your draft by creating the second draft. Incorporate all the notes and new information you found. Delete all information that doesn’t fit or is erroneous. Once your second draft is complete, you can share it with friends, family or a set of readers who can offer you a valuable perspective that you can not possibly have on your own.
Repeat this step as often as needed. New drafts require new reads by different people. A continual process of writing and feedback will produce a final draft that will read very differently from the first draft but will hold true to your personal story and the idea you are trying to convey.
What if I am not a Good Writer?
Not everyone is a perfect writer. You can jot down your personal history in a journal on your own or record it on an audio or video device, even if you are not a writer. For writing the book, you can hire a freelance writer. You will share your notes, family tree, historical events, personal experiences, family history and other details about other family members relevant to your own life story with the freelance writer so they can write a great memoir or biography for you.
And you have created a memorable gift that can be lived over and over again. Once you are through writing about your life, you can appreciate how well you have lived and come to terms with anything negative that has happened in the past.
It is a good idea to share a copy of your book with people who are part of it, so they have something to remember you by. Your descendants, who you may never meet, will take great pleasure in knowing about your life story, given that they may never meet you. They will know about your trials and tribulations and learn from your wisdom to live better and fuller lives.