How to write an Autobiography – The Complete Guide

Lots of people ask how to write an autobiography or how to write a memoir. Sitting down and doing it doesn't have to be as hard as it seems.

This 8,000 word case study will walk you step-by-step through what is required to write your own autobiography, memoir or life story. Since this post is so long, I've included a table of contents for your quick reference below…

#1 : Introduction
#2 : Memoir or Autobiography
#3 : How will you do it?
#4 : Pick your audience
#5 : Where to begin
#6 : Phases of writing
#7 : Write out a timeline
#8 : Other brainstorming ideas
#9 : Where to find content
#10 : Memory prompt lists
#11 : The StoriesKept eBook
#12 : Organize your lists into a structure
#13 : Picking a theme
#14 : Starting to write
#15 : Editing your autobiography
#16 : Getting permission
#17 : How should I organize my final story?
#18 : Software for writing
#19 : Making time
#20 : Writers block
#21 : Write using stories
#22 : Writing about difficult topics
#23 : Stretching the truth
#24 : Writing about drug, alcohol abuse, violence, unfaithfulness
#25 : The temptation to quit
#26 : Share and publish
#27 : StoriesKept can help
 
Let's jump in !

Introduction

While you may not believe it, every person has a story to tell about his or her life. You may think that you have nothing to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.

You don't need to be rich or famous to write an autobiography. Even though history tends to document only the lives of the rich and famous, everybody contributes to the history of the human race in his or her own way. And you are especially important to yourself, your family, your descendants and your friends.

Writing an autobiography allows you to share the lessons you have learned, your trials and tribulations, your successes and your failures, with people who want to hear about your life and your stories. Almost every person I know wishes that they had known more about their parents or their grandparents. It is often not until they are gone that we realize what we have missed out on.

What is your motivation for writing your autobiography?

  • Interested in passing on my family history to future generations
  • Recording my person history
  • Pass on my values and philosophies
  • Reflecting on a personal transformation
  • Share about my life's work or community involvement
  • Therapeutic writing
  • A before and after testimony of a spiritual journey

When you use some of the links included in this article, you will soon discover how quickly your memories can come flooding back, and how helpful some of your wisdom and hard-earned lessons can be to future generations.

There are over 7.5 billion people in the world – and every story is different. In this article, we are going to explore the easiest way to write your autobiography. So grab a cup of coffee, a pen and some paper, and let's get started.

Memoir or Autobiography?

Before we get underway, we need to understand the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. It will make a big difference when it's time to get started. So for the record:

An autobiography covers your entire life span.

It doesn't have to be written in chronological order (although it normally is). And while most autobiographies are generally a historical factual account, there is no reason why you can't embellish the truth slightly while you are writing.

A memoir covers a small part of your life.

It is normally based around a central incident, experience or theme. For example, it may be about how you coped with an illness in your life, or it may be about the antics you got up to during your career. They are normally more personal than an autobiography, and cover things that happened in more depth and with stronger story-telling elements.

Unlike an autobiography and a memoir, a biography is about someone else's life.

Even though this article is to help write an autobiography or a memoir, the same principles can be applied when you are writing about another person's life.

How will you do it?

Doing an autobiography in written form is a popular method – but it is not the only choice. Other options include a videography, an audio history or a photographic essay. No matter which method you choose, this article will help you get on your way. The emphasis you put on the different areas may be different to other people, but the techniques to get started and the topics you will want to cover will be very similar.

Pick your audience

Before you start, you will want to figure out who you are writing for. You need to decide: who will read your book?

You will be using a different writing style for your grandchildren and family than you would if you are producing an autobiography for formal publication or a community.

Your friends and family will want to read about important, funny or tragic events in your life. Often they will want to know additional information about your parents and grandparents, and will be especially interested in earlier events of your life from before they were around. It is also a way to pass on family history, values, wisdom, and folklore. It preserves a written account of the past for future generations.

When you are writing for a wider (unrelated) audience, they will be looking for encouragement, support, a moral, or a message in your writing to apply to their own lives. To keep your audience engaged, your writing may need to be more entertaining than when you write for your family.

However, as you decide your intended audience, don't forget the most important person of all: YOU!

It is going to take some considerable time to complete your writing, and by the time you finish your autobiography, you will want to feel engaged and enriched by the experience. If you learn something about yourself along the way, it will make it all the more worthwhile.

Writing about the past by retracing our steps allows us to recall what happened through a new set of eyes. It allows us to make sense of the experiences and feelings we had at the time, helps us make peace with the past, and allows us to decide how to act in the present.

Where to begin

Writing an autobiography can be such an overwhelming prospect that most people find it immensely difficult to even get started.

Joanna Penn puts it eloquently in her blog post entitled "How do you start writing?" when she stated:

"There may be as many reasons for not starting as there are writers facing a persistently blank page, but I think for a lot of us, the hang-up is anxiety about setting off on the wrong path."

In her post she also suggests that you don't have to start at the beginning.

Due to a phenomenon called "childhood amnesia", most adults can't remember anything that happened to them before the age of 3. In the case of an autobiography, it makes sense that starting at the beginning of your life will be the most challenging.

Writing your life story is a lot like a jigsaw. There are hundreds (often thousands) of pieces, and each piece makes up a part of your life. In much the same way that you can start anywhere when you are putting a jigsaw puzzle together, you can do the same when you are writing your autobiography.

Phases of Writing

We will go into each phase in more detail. But for now, here is a summary of the writing process:

1 – Collecting (and making lists)

  • Events
  • Who, what, where, when, how
  • Positive, negative
  • Memory triggers: photo albums, pictures, notes, diaries, journals, letters
  • Maps and Google Search
  • Keep a notebook handy at all times

2 – Sorting

  • Chronological or Thematic order
  • Highlight and discard (put aside)
  • Missing memories
  • Story or Plot

3 – Writing

  • Who, what, where, when, how
  • Sound, sight, touch, taste, smell
  • Use your own voice and personality
  • Work with honesty and truth
  • Use imagery for inspiration

4 – Distancing

  • Put it aside and get some distance
  • Several days, if not a week or two (or more)

5 – Editing

  • Rewrite or edit
  • Be critical – but not too critical

5 – Finalizing

  • Sequencing and Formatting
  • Including images and photos
  • Printing, Publishing or Self-Publishing

Write out a timeline

Creating a timeline of your life is a good way to make sure you include the important events and dates. It will give you a foundation to build on and will give you a bird's eye view of your life.

I often find it easiest to start with a stack of paper and write each significant part of my timeline at the top of each page. As ideas come to mind, it becomes easier to record them on the relevant page.

A good starting point is a page for each of the following:

  • Birth
  • Childhood – Age 0 to 10
  • Teenage Years – Age 11 to 17
  • Early Adult – Age 18 to 24
  • Further Education
  • Adulthood – Age 25 to 44
  • Adulthood – Age 45 to 64
  • Older Adult Years – Age 65+

You may also want to create pages for:

  • Military
  • Migration
  • Business
  • Marriage / Divorce / Widowed
  • Loss of a Parent / Loss of a Child
  • Your Children
  • Grandchildren
  • Great Grandchildren

Qualities
Identify the main qualities of your life during each time period and write it as a single word at the top of the page. Examples include "carefree", "blissful", "unhappy", "frightening" and "miserable".

Roles
Write down the roles you played during each time of your life. This might include "student", "parent", "spouse", "child", "volunteer", etc. You might have more than one role on some pages.

Firsts
Include a list of firsts on each page. This might include a death, leaving home, boyfriend/girlfriend, sexual feelings, illness, jobs, etc.
Add objects or possessions that had meaning at the time. This might include a car, a house, toys, music, books, etc.

People
Think about friends (and enemies) you had at the time. Record the people who influenced your life during each stage. Make a list of the bosses you worked for.

World events
Record major world events in the relevant pages. This might include wars, discoveries, strikes, disasters, etc. Include technological advancements including TV, airplanes, electricity, telephone, internet, and medical breakthroughs.

Positive and Negative
You will also want to subdivide the remainder of each page into positive and negative topics.

Now start brainstorming other memories from the different parts of your life. Make sure you write down everything that comes to mind on the relevant pages and in the corresponding columns.

By the time you finish, you should notice that you have lots of individual memories mixed in with a significant life event at least every year of so. If you are 40 years old, you should have between 15 and 20 life-shaping events.

Highlight
Use a highlighter to go through your brainstorm and highlight the significant events. These will become the basis of your main autobiography. You may find it easier to rewrite the list of the major events on a new sheet of paper.

Themes
If you are writing a memoir, you can go even further and find common themes between the events to be weaved into your story.

When you have finished, go through each significant event and rate the positivity or negativity impact on a scale from 1 to 10. Reflect on what you may have gained or learned from the experience. See if you can identify any key decisions that contributed to the event. These will be useful when it's time to write your story.

Other brainstorming ideas

Draw a map of the various neighbourhoods you lived in. Draw a floor plan of your house. Write down what you remember about your neighbours. Trace the path from your house to your school and other places you visited frequently. Make notes of things you remembered seeing or doing along the way. Do this for each of your houses, schools, and jobs.

Use Google to find historical photos of your old homes and schools.

Where to find content

You will have already discovered that your memory is a powerful thing. Within a short period, you will have filled up most of your pages with topics. You will probably find that each time you write down a memory, another one will pop into your head and that you won't be able to keep up.

However, if you are struggling, there are several other things you can do to build your timeline.

  • Talk to relatives and friends about yourself and the family. Involve them in your project. Your enthusiasm will stir up lots of memories.
  • Sort through your old photo albums. Take a close look at other people in the photos, what you were wearing, what you were doing, where you were.
  • Look at old school reports, maps, letters and journals.
  • Check the internet to find old news articles of the places you lived in.
  • Locate family treasures. Find out where they came from and why they were kept.

Memory Prompt Lists

The internet is a fantastic resource when it comes to finding inspiration.

Try Googling the term "autobiography questions list", and you will find over 2 million links.

Most of these links have been created to provide a list of questions you can ask when you are interviewing a third party. They all tend to contain the same set of questions, and most questions can be answered in one or two sentences, e.g., "Did you have any nicknames?" or "When and where were you born?"

You will also find that a large number of the sites are education-based and contain instructions or assignments for school students to write an autobiography (or biography) as part of an English study curriculum.

While these lists can be quite useful, they often lack questions on the later years of your life, and most questions lack the depth and inspiration needed to write an engaging autobiography.

While we were doing research for StoriesKept, we made a list of some of the sites with the best questions.
 

FamilySearch.org
If you are looking for a good list of questions to cover your entire life, you can't go past the #52 Stories list produced by FamilySearch.org. They also introduced me to the concept of writing one story a week for one year (which we adopted in the StoriesKept software package)

URL : 52 Questions in 52 Weeks

Jeriweb.com
Jeri Walker's list, "52 Memoir Prompts", is a good addition to the previous link

URL : 52 Memoir Prompts

WriteShop
Kim Kautzer from the WriteShop website has a great list that concentrates on your childhood years. Her blog post is entitled "22 writing prompts that jog childhood memories"

URL : 22 writing prompts that jog childhood memories

Carol La Valley
Along with painting pottery, Carol Baxter also created an excellent list entitled "115 prompts to get you writing your life story" in her "Stardust in My Pocket" blog. The questions are a bit more thought-provoking than the previous three links. Instead of a chronological list, the questions focus more on turning points and lessons you have learned.

URL : 115 prompts to get you writing your life story

Corey Blake
Corey Blake is the CEO of a company called Round Table Companies – a story-telling company. His list entitled "19 Questions to help you write a memoir" introduces some interesting topics that are not covered in other links.

URL : 19 Questions to help you write a memoir

Familysearch.org
In 2017, FamilySearch.org updated their list of memory prompts by breaking them down into monthly themes. The themes they covered include:

Jan – Goals and Achievements
Feb – Love and Friendship
Mar – Occupations and Hobbies
Apr – Home and Hearth
May – Mothers and Motherhood
Jun – Fathers and Fatherhood
Jul – Events and Milestones
Aug – Travels and Vacations
Sep – Education and School
Oct – Values and Beliefs
Nov – Causes and Convictions
Dec – Holidays and Traditions

New York Times
If you are looking for memoir ideas, the New York Times has produced a list of 650 prompts for narrative and personal writing. The list touches on everything from sports to travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media, and more.

URL : 650 prompts for narrative and personal writing

Planet of Success
On a lighter note, Steve Mueller of Planet of Success produced a list of questions that are a little bit different. While they don't necessarily belong in an autobiography, they are really inspirational (and sometimes quirky) questions for a memoir or a reflective piece.

Wrapping some of your stories around these questions would produce a good anecdotal material. The blog post is entitled "100 Good Questions to Ask to Get to Know Someone". A selection of these would be quite entertaining when you are recording an oral history of another person. The questions will almost certainly introduce humour, surprise, and honesty in the recording.

URL : 100 Good Questions to Ask to Get to Know Someone

The Conversation Starters
To round out our list, the following link has a series of questions that are not included in previous roundups. The Conversation Starters World website by CB Daniels contains interesting questions on a range of topics – with most of them revolving around relationships.

The blog post we found most useful was entitled "200 Questions to get to know someone".

URL : 200 Questions to get to know someone

The StoriesKept eBook

When we were collating our own questions, we found it quite frustrating to pick out the best questions and organize them in chronological order. We also wanted to ensure that the questions we selected were thought-provoking, open-ended, and structured to make a story flow well.

These frustrations led us to create our own eBook with 650+ questions organized in chronological order. The questions were chosen to be used as a guide when writing your own autobiography/memoir, or as a comprehensive source of questions when interviewing a family member to capture memories before they are gone.

We listed the book on Amazon, and offer a free copy on our website. You can download your own free copy below.


Download Your FREE Copy Now!


Organize your lists into a structure

Once you have created all your lists, it is time to get them into some sort of structure. Even though you may not end up writing your story in chronological order, it is often the best way to start.

As you go through your list, make a note of any facts you might want to check, and any people you might want to confer with to make sure your story is correct. You might also want to make notes of other important things you will want to find. This may include photos or documents that will help illustrate the different parts of your life, and the locations where various events took place.

Picking a theme

If you have decided to write a memoir, you will want to find a theme. As you are outlining your structure, various themes will pop out at you.

Some of the most common themes are:

  • Family
  • Love
  • Perseverance
  • Adventure
  • Achievements
  • Lost Love and Lessons Learned
  • Work
  • Travel
  • Successes
  • Failures

Selecting a theme will increase the enjoyment for your audience. Unless you are trying to deliver a message or a moral, you may find that your main theme changes as you progress through your writing.

Starting to write

You can present your story in any order. It's common for writers to start writing about a particular memory, place, event or person and then jump to a completely unrelated memory or time. If you find some subjects easier to write than others, you may use this as your writing style. You can always go back and reorganize your writing when you have finished. Having easy wins will motivate you and help you continue on your story.

Pick a subject from your list and write about it. Don't worry about writing the perfect text. Grammar and spelling aren't important at this time, and it doesn't matter if you write content that doesn't end up in your final version. It is better to get your story written down (in all its glory) than to spend the time trying to write the perfect piece.

When you are finished, put your writing to one side and pick another subject. Once you have written the first section, you will find that the writing process becomes much easier and the stories will begin to flow.

Another reason you will want to put the story aside is so you can look at your writing with a fresh set of eyes in a day or two.

Editing your autobiography

Once you have completed your first draft, set it aside for a while and take a break. If you look at your writing immediately after it is written, you will be so invested in what you have written that you won't be able to see any mistakes you have made, or be able to restructure your writing to make it more readable.

Because you are the writer, you will find it very difficult to remain objective, so you may want to consider getting a professional editor, another family member, or an independent friend (someone not mentioned in your stories) to review your work.

If you decide to review your own work, use a red pen or pencil to mark the pieces that need a rewrite or don't work. Some sections may need deleting because they don't add to the story or will not be interesting to your audience. Don't be surprised if you make lots of changes at this stage.

To write a good autobiography, there are several things you should watch out for:

  • Don't use over-sentimental words. This is not a romance novel.
  • Include visual images wherever you can. This makes your story more real.
  • Don't string a list of facts together as a story (e.g., the couple has six children, the first was born…, the next was born …, the next was born…, etc.)
  • Use all your senses when you are writing scenes: sound, sight, touch, taste, smell.
  • Write as if the reader is sitting next to you and you are verbally telling them the story.
  • Tell your story as if the reader is looking through your eyes and reliving the moments.
  • Create an emotional journey. Make your reader feel something.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they write about their lives is not going into enough detail. You have to always keep in mind that your readers were not there when the event took place. They can't visualize the setting, hear the dialogue nor interact with the environment. It is these little insights that are most revealing to future generations.

So even if you think a description of your school uniform or what your classroom looked like is not significant, I can assure you it will fascinate your children, grandchildren and the future generations that will get to read your story.

You should also check your memories with other family members; you will be surprised how different the memories will be. And while the memories of others may be different, there is no need to change your life story – unless it adds value to the narration. Always remember that you are writing your autobiography or memoir from YOUR point of view.

Getting permission

Nothing should stop you from writing about others in your autobiography. There is often no need to get their permission either. However, you may be putting yourself at risk.

When writing a biography, it is recommended that you not only involve the subject of your writing, but you should also get "written" (not just verbal) consent from all the living people in your story.

Writer Anne Lamott once said:

"If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."

The sad reality is that you can't just write whatever you want about another person. You need to use care and responsibility. It is important that you don't use your autobiography to dish out the dirt on family, friends, or colleagues.

This will be less of a problem if you are writing only for your family and close friends. But if you are intending to publish your works publically, it is essential to pay close attention to the laws surrounding Defamation and Invasion of Privacy.

The words defamation, libel and slander are the legal terms for publishing false statements about a person, such that it caused harm to their reputation. As long as the facts are true (and you can prove it), you will remain safe. To succeed in a defamation case, the person must be able to prove that the statements were not true and that they have harmed his/her reputation. Changing the name of a character is not enough. If the public can identify who the original person was, you may still be at risk.

The following link has several useful examples of defamation:

URL : http://www.creativejuicesbooks.com/defamation-of-character.html

It is interesting to note that when you write an opinion, it cannot be considered as defamation. For example, "I hated the chicken at Fred's Cafe" is safe – even if everyone knows who Fred is.

The other thing you need to consider is invasion of privacy. It is considered invasion of privacy to disclose information about someone else that was previously unknown (there is a loophole if the person is famous or it is newsworthy). For example, if your former boss used to beat his wife, you can't just tell the world about it – even if it is true. However, if your former boss used to beat you, you are considered an interested party and you are free to tell the story. Be cautious though – this is a difficult area and he may still take legal action.

I guess the takeaway is that you should be careful when writing bad things about other people. Use common sense, and if you are in doubt, err on the side of caution (or get legal advice).

How should I organize my final story?

As you get closer to the end of your writing process, you will be able to reorder things to suit the way you want your story to flow. It's good to have an overall structure in your mind at the start – but this will change as you work through your storyline, and setting it in concrete too early will make it difficult to explore your life in interesting and varied ways.

When it's time to prepare your final version, you have several ways to organize your story:

  • Chronological
  • Thematic
  • Anecdotal

Chronological Order
When you write in chronological order, you are organizing your story so the stories flow in the order they occurred. Your autobiography would normally start with your birth and continue up to today. This is the most common format for an autobiography.

While writing in chronological order is very straightforward, and your reader will not be confused about the order of events, you also risk boring your audience. Because some parts of our life are not as interesting, you may decide to skip some periods. This will make your story lurch forward or be very disconnected. In that case, a thematic or anecdotal order may work better.

Thematic Order
When you write in thematic order, you group your life events into common themes. This allows you to fully explore a theme over multiple times in your life before continuing on with your story. The advantage of thematic writing is that if your audience is interested in specific subjects, they can turn directly to the chapter about that subject.

While some themes may seem obvious, you may also consider grouping the various experiences of your children together. This will allow you to compare and contrast their experiences with first words, first day of school, sporting ability, etc. When you write in chronological order, you often miss out this perspective completely.

Anecdotal order
The final order you could use is the most interesting (and the most difficult to do). When you write using anecdotal order, you end up telling short stories that are normally amusing in some way. The result is that it usually ends up as a very enjoyable read. The problem with using anecdotal order is that you will tend to leave out anything that is not funny or amusing – therefore leaving big holes in your life story.

Software for writing

Unless you intend to write your entire life story with pen and paper, you are going to need to use computer software or an online application.

I have seen people have varying success with writing their story using EverNote, Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

If you have ever written a family history with a word processor, you quickly come to terms with how things slow down as the size of the document increases. It doesn't take many images to make most word processors sluggish and almost grind to a halt. And lining up images can be a nightmare.

Adding to the frustration is making sure the images are the right size, and that the page breaks are in the right places. If you have ever gone back and edited an earlier piece of work, you will certainly understand how annoying it can be when a small change can cause the entire document to need manual reformatting.

The point about memories is that they don't necessarily appear in chronological order, and writing in a word processor also makes it difficult to keep things in the correct order.

This is where specialized software can help.

Some of the benefits of using online software will be the ability to ignore questions that don't appeal to you and being able to write about topics in a random order. The image processing capabilities should allow you to include scanned images and photos against each topic. The images would need to be automatically resized and optimized to ensure they are perfectly aligned and presented when you produce your final document.

When it comes time to produce the final document, you will want to print locally or export in a range of industry-standard printing formats for sending off to a printing and binding company (often called a print-on-demand service).

When you select a different paper size, your life story should be instantly reformatted to match the new paper size, so you don't need to spend time resetting page breaks or moving images between pages.

StoriesKept Can Help

StoriesKept takes care of all of this, and much more. If you liked the questions we included in our eBook, you will want to give our online software a try. If you didn't get a copy of our free eBook, you can get it here instead of paying for a copy on Amazon:

 


Download Your FREE Copy Now!


 
Nearly every question included in our eBook has been presented as a single sentence memory prompt. This makes it very easy to look through the list and find a topic to write about; and it will certainly give you a good checklist for your writing.

However, our online software includes a much more comprehensive version of each question. For example, the question about friendships is shown in the eBook as:

"Tell me about friendships you had as a young child and when you were at primary school."

The online version of the question is:

"Tell me about friendships you had as a young child and when you were at primary school. Did you make friends easily? Who was your best friend and general playmates? How did you meet and what do you remember doing together? Have any of these friendships lasted? What fun did you have and what trouble did you get into together? How far away did you live from your friends? Where did you play? Did you stay at each other's house? How did you get there? Did you have anyone you didn't get on with? How did you deal with that?"

As you can see, the online version is significantly enhanced and can greatly improve your life story by helping you recall extra details about each topic.

You can get a free, no obligation trial of our online software by using the following link:


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Other software alternatives you can try include Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Documents, Scrivener, OneNote, EverNote and AutoDotBiography.

Making Time

Finding time to write is one of the biggest concerns that writers have. However, there is a secret that I want to share with you.

According to Jennifer Blanchard of the blog Procrastinating Writers:

It's not about finding time to write; it's about making time to write.

Many writers forget that writing is a choice. When you say you are trying to "find" time to write, you are in the mindset that you need to squeeze it in between other tasks. And based on how busy you are, you may not actually find the time to write.

If we switch this around and use the word "making" time to write, we are being proactive and giving writing a priority. It means it is important to you and you are integrating it into your day.

Making time is not as hard as you think. You can make it happen with only three steps:

Step 1 – Choose writing. There are literally millions of things you could be doing. But if you want to be a writer, writing has to be an activity that you choose to do.

Step 2 – Put it in your schedule. If writing is important to you, you will need to schedule some time to do it. Once you have chosen a time to do your writing, you will need to schedule (squeeze in) other tasks around it. By doing this, you are protecting your writing time.

Step 3 – Stick to your choice. Now that you have made the decision, you need to follow through and stick to the plan. If something comes up, you have the option of saying no. And it's okay to say no. You don't have to say yes to everything in your life. You have the right to protect your time and save it for things that matter to you.

Don't expect to be able to knock out an autobiography in a week or two. A good autobiography will take many months, or even years. You are going to spend a lot of time writing, so it is advisable to get into some good habits.

Give yourself time to adjust to the writing process if writing doesn't come naturally to you or if you find it difficult to put out 1,000 or more words per sitting. Don't worry if you only get a couple hundred words out on the first day. You should be proud that you have made the start.

You need to give yourself time to establish a rhythm. Give yourself 3 or 4 weeks to get into the writing habit.

Writer's Block

At some stage you will get writer's block – the complete inability to write anything down or to make progress on your work. There is nothing worse for a writer than staring at a blank sheet of paper.

But here's a trick that can get you over the hump:

"They don't even have to be good words."

Pick your topic and start rambling. Just go nuts. Write whatever comes to mind, and keep writing. If you need to, call it your "first draft". Write a few hundred of the most low quality words you can think of to get started. The point is you need to start writing about the topic. You can always go back and revise your first draft. You can fix low quality writing (most of the time), but you have to write something in the first place.

If you can't even write your first draft, spend the time writing an outline. Put down bullet points that can be expanded when you get the inspiration. More often than not, writing an outline can kick-start the writing process.

Write using stories

The best way to connect with people is to tell them stories. Very few people, if any, enjoy reading a list of facts.

The best way to tell a story is to put yourself as close to the story as possible. Think about what you saw, heard, smelled and felt at the time. Imagine you are a photographer or a videographer. Get close to the experience, take the reader's hand, and lead them through the event.

If you can make the reader laugh or cry, stir their soul, or capture their heart, your autobiography or memoir is bound to be a success.

A lot of people will find this difficult to do, and provided that your audience is your family and descendants, you can often get away with a more factual account of your life where they can find out things about your life that they never knew.

Don't just write a list of accomplishments with all the negative material ignored or swept under the rug. We all have flaws and disappointments, and presenting yourself as a whole person will help your readers better understand what your life was like. Be true to yourself and reveal your inner thoughts, opinions, and ideas. Make sure you include the stories that show the mistakes you have made, and the times you have failed yourself and other people.

Writing about difficult topics (abuse)

Melinda Copp from The Write Life has some great advice on this topic.

In her blog she writes about how people love reading stories about how others have triumphed over obstacles, bad circumstances, and abuse. She also writes about how writing a memoir about your troubled past also means that you need to face up to uncomfortable memories.

When you write about abuse, you need to be 100% certain why you are writing about it, and what you hope to achieve. If it's to get even, to hurt the other person, or to dish the dirt, you should stop and think twice.

Writing terrible things about the people that have hurt you and the associated emotion doesn't belong in a memoir; it belongs in a diary, where it won't ever see the light of day.

Revenge is not a good reason to write a memoir.

However, once you have taken the time to write your raw emotions down, you can hopefully start fresh when you are ready to write for an audience.

Your writing needs to reflect more than your experiences; more importantly, it needs to be about how they made you a better person. It needs to provide a deeper meaning than just what happened to you.

One of Melinda's readers suggested that it can be helpful to find a person that is close to you, and get them to interview you about the subject. The interview should be recorded and then you can get a third party to type it up for you. Oral interviews tend to contain more content, are less one-sided and disjointed. They can be funny, fearful, inspirational, and bizarre. It also takes the sting out of the responses. The reader suggested that being interviewed makes it easier to see images in your mind and to cover more ground in a single session.

If you are sure you want to keep writing, you will need to make sure you have a clear understanding of the issues surrounding defamation and slander before you begin.

Stretching the truth

Writing your life story allows you to tell your story through your own lens. The story will be unique, and if your brothers or sisters wrote about the same event, the story they would tell could be quite different.

Because autobiographies and memoirs are based on memories that are notoriously unreliable, you may unconsciously stray from the truth. That's human nature and unavoidable. There is always a subjective slant when you try to remember things.

Most memorialists will change names to protect the identity of other participants. Others may change the place or physical details, and these are considered acceptable lies. Ultimately, your own memory and conscience will determine what's true.

When writing a memoir, the use of metaphors and emphasis are acceptable – outright lies and intentionally making things up are not. For some writers, sticking to the facts is too constricting, while others find it liberating.

If you make it up, you should call it fiction.

Omission is not a lie. It's entirely up to you how much you decide to share. There may be parts of your life that are too painful to write about, or some things that are just too personal.

Steve Almond (writer of Candyfreak and www.therumpus.net) sums it up best when he states:

Embellishing for humorous effect, sure, fine. Condensing time, okay. Reconstructing dialogue. Yes, if need be. But don't invent, unless you want to write fiction.

Writing about drug and alcohol abuse/violence/unfaithfulness

Ask yourself if you really want to include them in your life story. Do they add value?

Be careful that you aren't turning your memoir or autobiography into a confessional to get attention or to get even with someone.

Do you really want a full description of your early indiscretions on record for future generations to read? Is it something you would want your children or parents to read?

Is it possible to mention some actions without going into unnecessary detail? Clarify your motives first. Is it to be sensational, to debunk, or to set the record straight?

Some stories will be safe to tell if they matched society's views at the time (e.g., the swinging 60's drugs and free love) Other stories will be okay to tell if society's views have changed over the years and you are reflecting on a point of view or opinion from that time (e.g., prejudice).

And, unless you have very valid reasons to bring them up, some stories should be left unsaid.

In the end, it's your story, and no one can force you to tell a story you want to keep under cover. If you decide to write about these subjects, emphasize the event rather than the people involved.

The temptation to quit

Sometimes the temptation to quit is really strong – especially when you reach a hurdle you can't seem to get past. You might have an overwhelming urge to shelve your work in utter frustration.

My advice to you is, don't give up!

If you don't think you can carry on, see if you can find a way to make something out of the work you have done to date. Even the smallest memories or pieces of writing will be treasured by future generations.

Just think for a moment… Imagine how you would have felt if you had found an original letter penned by your great, great grandfather from nearly 100 years ago; or if you found a handwritten diary with scribbles and side notes from a relative and a time gone by.

My point is that your work doesn't have to be polished, or published, for it to be special. A scribbled note, a drawing, or your writing to date is a wonderful achievement. You may decide to come back to it later – but if you don't, your work deserves a final effort to ensure it survives and becomes something truly important to your children, grandchildren and descendants.

Take the time to roughly organize the pages. Either get them bound or put them in a large envelope in your top drawer. At some time in the future, someone will find them, and the joy they will find will make your efforts all the more worthwhile.

Take a break from your writing. Recharge yourself, and come back to it later. I have personally come back to a book I started writing nearly 15 years ago. One of these days I will get it finished. But in the meantime, it is stored safely in the top drawer in my bedroom.

Perhaps you are going through a difficult season of your life, maybe you have had some discouraging feedback, or maybe your nearest and dearest ones don't "get" your writing.

Ali Luke has some great advice in her blog post entitled "How to keep writing when you want to quit" :

  • If your life isn't currently compatible with writing, do what you can in the time you have available – even if it is only 15 minutes of writing a day.
  • If you have had some discouraging feedback, find a popular book on Amazon and read all the one-star reviews (I love this advice). All writers get negative feedback – even the popular ones.
  • If the people around you don't "get" your writing, stop talking to them and just write. Get to know other writers and join a writing group.

Ali's best bit of advice is that the piece you are working on "could be exactly what someone wants to read, right now … Don't let your fears or doubts rob the world of what you have to give."

I would add to this that your work will be treasured by generations to come, and that you are going to be a writer whose stories survive the test of time. Of this, I have no doubt.

Share and publish

After you have written your autobiography or memoir, you need to consider how you are going to share it with friends and family.

Before you select any of the following options, make sure you have proofread your work and had it checked by several other people. Printing a book is an expensive exercise and it is worth spending the extra time to iron out any wrinkles and fix spelling and grammatical errors. It could take several days to complete this step – but it is well worth the effort.

Here are some of the options for producing your final work:

Print at home. This is the most common option. If you have a good quality laser printer, you can easily print your story at home. You may also decide to visit your local stationery shop that can often print good quality colour pages using their professional photocopy machines.

Print-on-demand. There are hundreds of companies that will print and bind your book. Normally you provide them with a high quality PDF file, and they will deliver you the finished books. The cost of shipping will be your biggest challenge. Books are often heavy and international shipping costs can be high. Search for "Print on Demand" on Google to find local companies. Your other challenge will be providing them with the correct format PDF file. You will need to follow the instructions they provide to ensure you get a good result.

Look for a professional publisher. I once read that publishers see hundreds and thousands of manuscripts a year – and only choose between ten and thirty of these to represent. Your writing will need to be unique, relevant and highly entertaining if you decide to go down this route. Be prepared for rejection – you will most likely face a lot of it. If you are determined to get your writing published, the Amazon KDP service may be your best option (see the next topic).

Self-publish. Amazon allows writers to publish their work in their online store. It doesn't cost anything (other than your time) to list your book worldwide. Amazon will take a percentage of your sales – but they also look after all the printing, billing and distribution. To find out more, visit http://kdp.amazon.com.

Use Software. Getting files ready for print-on-demand services can be tricky. You will have to spend time formatting your work and making sure images and page breaks appear in the right places. You will also need to ensure that the margins are appropriate for the book format you select.

StoriesKept can help – Give it a try!

The StoriesKept Software can take care of everything for you. It will give you the inspiration to write. It will ensure that your images are the right format (with high enough resolution). It also ensures that your margins and page breaks are correct. It will produce a PDF file that can be sent directly to a print-on-demand company to produce your final book. It takes care of the entire process.

You can get a free trial of the software by filling in the following form:
 


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Should I write a memoir, autobiography, life story or personal narrative?

When it comes to writing, an autobiography, memoir, life story or personal narrative all fall into the same general genre. While they all refer to writing about someone’s life, they are also slightly different from one another. If we throw the concept of a biography and a journal into the mix, things can get somewhat confusing.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you call your writing (except to book publishers and academics). The fact that you are contemplating to write about your history, or the history of another person is to be highly commended; whether it is for your own therapy or the consumption of your descendants, it is a big undertaking that will be treasured by your family and descendants for years to come.

Autobiography

When you write an autobiography, you will be writing about yourself and your own life. Autobiographies are normally written in the “first person” and use words like I, me, we and us, as well as he, she, etc. (Occasionally they can be written in the third person)

According to the Cambridge Dictionary:

Autobiographies normally cover an entire lifespan and consist of a person’s viewpoints and memories.

Unless you are famous, your target audience will almost certainly be your family members and descendants. Often, they know very little about where you grew up and what you were like when you were young. Many things you consider trivial may be fascinating to your readers.

However unintentional, the inability (or unwillingness) of the writer to accurately recall memories will, more often than not, produce a history that is not entirely true. Some psychologists have commented that an autobiography “offers the writer the chance to rewrite history”. The writing can often be subjective, full of emotion and personal thoughts that cannot be verified.

While an autobiography is specifically about the author, it doesn’t always hold true that the subject of the book is the “actual” writer. Many celebrity or political leader autobiographies use a ghostwriter to draft or write on their behalf. Usually there is a confidentiality clause between a ghostwriter and the credited author that requires the ghostwriter to remain anonymous.

Biography

A biography is the detailed story of someone else’s life. It is normally written by someone who has researched or interviewed the person they are writing about. It also covers an entire lifespan.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary:


It covers intimate details of the subject’s life, and focuses on the highs and lows they have experienced throughout their life. Unlike an autobiography, it is normally unemotional and more based on the facts and interviews collected by the author. Often the information is gathered over time and from different sources.

Biographies can be written with or without the authorization of the subject. They are normally written in the “third person” with words like he, she, it, his, her, him, they, them and their.

Memoir

Many people mix up the terms autobiography and memoir. (It doesn’t help that Amazon puts them into the same category in their online shop).

A memoir is written by the person whom the story is about. However, unlike an autobiography, it normally only covers a small section of the author’s life and revolves around a centralized theme. They normally explore a significant event or incident in great depth and sometimes contain a lesson or a message that the writer wants to share with the readers.

A memoir is normally less formal and often appears to be friendly or conversational. Unlike an autobiography, memoirs are always written in the first person.

Because memoirs only cover a small part of your life, you can write multiple memoirs. The same does not hold true of an autobiography which normally covers your entire life, and can only be written once.

Personal Narrative

A memoir and a personal narrative are almost the same. They both tell a story of an event from the first person point of view. They have characters (actual people), a protagonist (the writer), a story arc and some fleshed out scenes. They both use fiction writing techniques to make a nonfiction story interesting and compelling.

A personal narrative tends to tell the story from a specific and personal point of view. It is a first-hand experience of a single event within a single time-frame. It includes experiences, thoughts, sounds, smells, tastes and reflections that would otherwise go unnoticed by a third party (e.g., escaping from the twin towers during 9/11).

On the other hand, a memoir can cover several time-frames that revolve around a central theme (e.g., escaping from the twin towers, followed by the aftermath in the person’s life, and the long term effects it had on them). It often includes information that was outside the writer’s immediate knowledge at the time, or that they did not personally experience.

Life Story

A life story is a bit of a lose term that encompasses both an autobiography and a biography.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary:


By definition, a life story doesn’t encompass a memoir or personal narrative because it needs to cover “everything” that has happened to someone during their life. As mentioned earlier, a memoir or personal narrative concentrates on only a small portion of the subject’s life.

Journal

The final category of writing is a journal or diary.

Unlike other genres, the target audience is yourself. For many of us, a journal is a place to turn to when we don’t want to express our thoughts or emotions to another person. They are also used to record our successes, failures and dreams. They are often used as a form of therapy or to get in touch with our inner feelings.

I kept a personal journal when I sold my business. It recorded all the highs and lows during a fast-changing part of my life. I had forgotten that I had written it, and was surprised when I stumbled upon it a few months ago. I’m looking forward to weaving it into my life story for when my grandchildren grow up.

To answer the question

Getting back to the original question, “Should I write a memoir, autobiography, life story or personal narrative?” The following flow chart should help you decide.

 

Have you found the hidden goldmine in your family tree?

As genealogists, we spend a good part of our lives searching through online records, church records, garages and storage spaces. Sometimes we strike gold and find a small piece of history that gives us a glimpse into the lives of the people we are researching on.

If you remember the excitement you felt when you found a document with your ancestor’s handwriting, or a page from a diary, you will know how exhilarating it can be. It’s not something you can easy describe, and you can only fully understand the feeling when you have experienced it first-hand. Without this, you are left to make assumptions about the lives of your ancestors.

Unfortunately, many of us are missing at least one (and possibly two or three) gold mines sitting right in front of our noses – more on that shortly.

3 generations for a story to be lost

It’s a sad reality that it only takes three generations for the story of an ancestor to be lost forever.

If you think about it, in most cases you will be able to tell the story of your parents and your grandparents. A few of us will be lucky enough to also know a little bit about our great grandparents. However, as the age of rearing children is increasing, the chances of knowing anything about our great grandparents when we come to investigate our family history is diminishing.

In New Zealand and Australia, the median age of women giving birth has increased from age 24 in the early 1970s to age 30 in the year 2010. The difference of just 6 years has a huge impact on your ability to recall memories of your great grandparents. And if you accumulate the difference over two generations, the difference increases to 12 years.

While the average age in USA has not increased to the same extent, the following graph illustrates the size of the increase:

The assumptions we make

We all like a good challenge. It’s built into our DNA. And there is no better challenge than seeing how far back we can go with our family tree. The only person we are competing against is ourselves. And every new ancestor takes us a step closer to our ultimate goal. It’s like an adrenaline rush – something you can tell others about, or another notch in your belt. It’s almost like we have our own leader board that we want to stay at the top of.

However, the reality of the situation is quite different.

Think about the oldest ancestors you have in your tree (the ones before 1841). Unless you have extraordinary sources, or strike it lucky with a written journal or notes in a bible, you know very little (if anything) about them.

You can make assumptions based on where they lived and what was happening in the region at the time. But without a written account, you can’t look into their soul and truly know how they felt, what they struggled with, what successes and failures they experienced.

It’s incredibly difficult to tell a compelling story when all you have is government documents and church records.

It often makes me wonder why I do it. I guess I am addicted to the chase.

But most of all, I think it is because of the gold nuggets I find from time to time that keep me searching for the big prize. The gold nuggets make the story interesting and keep me coming back for more.

My bit of luck

I struck it incredibly lucky with one of my ancestors, and I am eternally grateful to Carol McNeill because of it. In 2008, she published a book entitled “Round the World Flying, The journal of a Scottish emigrant’s voyage from London to Melbourne on the clipper Macduff in 1869”.

Through a series of events, and perfect timing, I managed to grab a copy of this astounding book about the life of one of my ancestors.

In this book, Alexander Macneill migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1869 from the small island of Gigha off the west coast of Scotland. For 75 days at sea, he recorded his experiences in a diary written for family and friends. Carol has brought everything together to produce a concise family history enhanced with maritime images, the passenger list, ship’s log and a cargo manifest.

Now Alick’s history may not mean much to you, but to our family, it was an amazing insight into his life. It allowed us to view his life through his eyes and to truly stand in his shoes for 75 days. If he had not taken the time to keep a journal, his history would have been lost forever. We would never have known who Alexander was. He would have simply been another node on our family tree supported by some census records, a passenger record, a birth record and a death record.

Skipping generations

Think about the time when you setup your family tree.

If you were like most of us, you will have placed yourself and your partner, your kids, your parents, and your grandparents, and then you would have headed off on your quest to find your ancestors. Off on the journey of multiple lifetimes – a trip of discovery and adventure.

Now, if you were like me, you probably got the birth, marriage (and possibly death) record of your grandparents. You may have asked them who their parents were and a couple of other questions. The information you gleaned would have helped you find the next generation back, and you were on your road to discovery.

Back up the bus

Did you see what I did there? I did what almost every new genealogist does (and many experienced ones too). I skipped an entire generation. In my excitement of building my family tree, I completely ignored what was staring me in the face.

– My grandparents’ narrative
– My parents narrative
– My own narrative

If these relatives are alive, you tend not to worry about them. It’s only when our loved ones are gone that you realize you have missed the opportunity.

Think about it – almost all family trees concentrate on the people that are no longer here. Most people don’t spend time documenting relatives until they are gone – and that is such a tragedy!

Imagine if your great grandparents had written a bit about their lives. How excited would you have been to find that?

The gold mine(s)

In a few generations to come, your descendants will face the same issue. They will know very little about you or your family.

If you manage to hand down your family tree (or better yet a written family history), you may be remembered as the one who recorded your family’s past. But in another couple of generations, you will probably end up as a node on someone’s family tree with a date of birth, marriage and death.

In my case, Carol McNeill had documented 75 days of Alexander’s life. It was a small window into an amazing life of adventure and discovery, triumphs and tragedies. I know very little of what happened to Alexander before and after his voyage. But the little bit I found made me incredibly happy.

You have an opportunity to do what Alexander did. You can (and should) interview your grandparents and parents before the opportunity is no longer available. They are the gold mines you are missing. They have so much to tell, and the stories are rich and deep. They are significantly better than anything else you will gather through researching online. A written (or oral) history will be treasured for years (and generations) to come.

You should also take the time to write a little bit about your life. It doesn’t have to be much. In my case I got to see 75 days of my relative’s life through his eyes. If you make the effort, I am sure you can do much better than that.

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In the next few blog posts, I will explain how you can start writing your life story. It doesn’t need to take much of your time (maybe 15 to 30 minutes a week). I will also show you how to interview your parents and grandparents, with a list of questions to invoke the most interesting stories. (You never know – you might learn something new about them).

I really encourage you to include a personal history of your closest relatives in your research. The future generations will be eternally grateful for it.

A worldwide dance video for love

With all the tension in the world that can divide us, this video is a reminder that we are better together. We have a lot more in common, than we might think, and the differences only make us stronger. It is simple: if we dance through live together, we can live together.

It is a non profit peace project. People from all over the world helped shooting this video by sending in videoclips of people dancing in their city.

Music: Justin Timberlake – Can’t stop the feeling (From DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls”)