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 !
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)
- 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:
- 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:
- Marriage / Divorce / Widowed
- Loss of a Parent / Loss of a Child
- Your Children
- Great Grandchildren
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Jeri Walker's list, "52 Memoir Prompts", is a good addition to the previous link
URL : 52 Memoir Prompts
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"
|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.
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.
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
|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.
|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.
|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".
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.
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:
- Lost Love and Lessons Learned
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
Instant access, No credit card required!
Other software alternatives you can try include Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Documents, Scrivener, OneNote, EverNote and AutoDotBiography.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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: