We hear that question a lot.
The correct answer is: Any way you want to. Just do it.
In his book On Writing Well author William Zinsser said:
One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I would have asked my mother about that. Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or grandfather"...
There are many different ways to write your life story and many books have been written about the subject (Zinsser devotes an entire chapter—Chapter 24—to just that).
So, how you write your own life story is really up to you. There is no right or wrong way to do it—as long as you do.
My wife Teri and I have been helping others to write their life stories for a while, and while we don’t consider ourselves to be experts, we have learned a few tricks-of-the-trade:
- Consider Answering Life Story Questions:
Take some time and think about what you want to write about. Your story can be about your entire life (maybe in chronological order) or just about a certain period of time (maybe raising your family or a career).
Generating a series of life story questions is a good way to focus on what you want to write about. The answers to those questions can be the content of your memoir.
- Don’t Record Just the Facts:
Life story facts are important and often times amazing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard: "I didn’t know you did that!"
Facts about life are needed, but we’ve also found that including your thoughts and feelings about things, and life in general, can make your story a true gem.
The readers of your life story (and especially your family and friends) want to know what you thought and how you felt! Please consider including those in your own life story.
- Write in Your Own Voice:
When my wife I used to help people write their life stories, we would ask the subject of the story many questions. We would record their answers on a digital recorder and later download (and shape) that material into a smooth flowing narrative inside the book.
That usually worked out very well, but on a few occasions our customers would proofread their book and say “I don’t talk like that-that isn't me” (when it really was).
We even had a few customers go back and completely re-write their life story using “The King’s English” in order to make it sound better.
Which is totally fine.
I would like to suggest that the readers of your story will like it better if it’s written the way you normally speak. That way, they will actually hear your voice when they read your memoir.
Your life story should sound like you.
Don’t feel pressured to write in any certain writing style. Be yourself—your family and friends will cherish and appreciate that.
- Include Valuable Old Photos:
They say a photo is worth a thousand words. That is true.
But an old photo with a description of what's going on is worth a million.
I have a photo of my parents the very first weekend they met (at Wasaga Beach in Canada).
They met totally by accident—after being scrunched into the back seat of a car going into town. Knowing their true story—the story behind the photograph—makes it so much more valuable.
Please include those in your own memoir.
I opened this blog with a William Zinsser quote, and I’m going to close it with one. He also said:
Your first job is to get your (life) story down as you remember it—now. Memories too often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.
Please consider his advice.
When you feel it's time for you to write your life story (or that of a loved one) please don’t be afraid or over think the job—just do it.
You and your family will be very glad you did.