On the surface it seems writing your life story should be easy. After all, you’re the main character and all the experiences that make up your story are filed in your memory. And yet, most of us struggle with where and how to start.
There are many reasons for that, but two primary ones stand out.
1. You think your life is boring and unlikely to be of interest to anyone else, perhaps not even to your family. I was having lunch with a few retirees when one of them, upon learning I help people write their life stories, said, “My life has been dull. No one would want to read it.”
Yet a few seconds later he added, “Now, if you asked me what it was like to work at Disneyland for 30 years, I could talk all day long.”
“Then that is where you begin your life story,” I said.
TV and Hollywood productions, with all their fast action, music, skilled actors, and special effects, have made many of us believe our lives are boring. That’s absolutely not true. Those fictional accounts are no comparison to the real experiences of our lives.
As you write your life story, focus on whatever times and events you wish, and you will begin to see beauty and meaning in things you once took for granted.
My maternal grandmother, pictured here with my mother at age three, died a few years later when giving birth to my uncle. My mother and I would love to have known about her life, her values, her aspirations, and more. Thankfully, we have this photo.
2. You are insecure about your writing skills.
“Some critics will write ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer’—which is right after being a natural heart surgeon.”~Maya Angelou
No one is a born writer. Start writing your life story and you’ll become a better writer as you go along. Besides, the content of your story is more important to your loved ones than the quality of your writing. If you decide to publish your story, you can engage the services of an editor and proofreader to make it ready for the public eye.
I have a cookie recipe on a now-yellowed index card my step-grandmother wrote in pencil and sent to my mother when I was a baby. This decades-old recipe is very precious to me, complete with the errors made by a woman who spent her childhood picking cotton and doing manual labor instead of learning to read and write in elementary school.
We have legitimate concerns that block us all when we set out to write our life stories, but two primary benefits to writing your life story will, I hope, override your hesitance.
1. Telling about past hurts can help you heal. At the start of my life story workshops a few students often announce there are things about their past they don’t want to relive. When I assure them that they get to choose what they want to share, they breathe a sigh of relief, and invariably end up writing about that very painful experience they’ve kept buried for so long that it spills onto the page. Once they’ve gotten it out they always feel lighter. Even those of us who listen to them reading their story are relieved and feel a bond with them.
2. Sharing details of your life will be valued by your descendants and sometimes go on to inspire strangers you’ll never meet. Your life story is not yours alone. It belongs to anyone who reads it and is empowered, encouraged or inspired by it.
Diaries give meaning to the people who leave them, and give us a glimpse into a past we would never have seen otherwise. The many diary entries kept by Anne Frank, for example, gave her a new routine while she was in hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She got the idea to start her diary when on March 28, 1944, the Dutch minister Bolkestein, who had fled to London, appealed to the Dutch to keep their important documents so they’d have a record of what they experienced during the German occupation.
Although Anne aspired to be a writer, keeping her diary had a much more important and immediate benefit for her.
“The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate” (Anne Frank, 16 March 1944).
Although her diary was compiled and published after her death, Anne Frank became one of the most famous diarists. Yet many other diaries written by ordinary people are meaningful to the diarist and to those who discover the diaries later. One such story that illustrates this is “Getting to Know My Grandmother-in-Law Through Her Diaries“ (Legacy Arts, Issue 17, January 2019, pp. 8-11).
Treasures can be hiding in your own or a loved one’s piles of papers, so carefully examine what at first may seem like clutter. You may find buried treasure.
If the idea of writing your story is still just too scary, you’ll be glad to know a variety of options are available to you for passing along your unique life story or that of your family.
Oral history. During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), from 1936 to 1938 under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), sent out-of-work writers to collect the life stories of ordinary people. The writers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia focused on interviewing former African American slaves. Because folklore expert John A. Lomax, who worked for the FWP, found these narratives intriguing, other states were directed to interview former slaves as well. The interviewees had been from one to fifty years old at the time of the Emancipation, and some were as old as one hundred at the time of the interviews. The result was Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938, containing transcriptions of more than 2,000 interviews along with 500 photographs of former slaves. These interviews were edited and have been digitized, giving us a glimpse of daily plantation life, some of brutality and others of surprising nostalgic memories. Stories captured on audio recordings and digitized give us a priceless look at a time that would have otherwise been lost forever.
Your family’s oral history does not have to be as formal as this project. Making audio or video recordings of your loved ones sharing details of their lives will be quite gratifying for years to come. If you can manage to get transcriptions created with tools such as http://temi.com, you will have a valuable legacy to pass on to future generations.
Artistic history. Ji Lee, a creative director for Facebook who lives in New York, told how his seventy-three-year-old retired father in Brazil became a grumpy couch potato after Ji Lee’s sister, her husband, and their two children, to whom Grandpa had devoted a lot of time, moved from Brazil back to Korea. Ji Lee remembered how his father used to draw pictures for him and his sister when they were kids. Seeking to find a way for his father to become more active and engaged, he asked his dad to start drawing again.
His father was initially uninterested. But when Ji Lee and his wife had their first child, it was easier to convince his father to create drawings to send his faraway grandkids in Korea and in New York.
Fortunately, Ji Lee’s mom was tech-savvy and encouraged her husband. As he began drawing pictures she posted them on Instagram for their grandchildren. Eventually, his father got more excited when Ji Lee promised him they could sell the pictures and use the money for him to travel to Korea and New York to visit. https://instagram.com/drawings_for_my_grandchildren/
Memories through crafts. When 89-year-old Nebraskan Margaret Hubl passed away in July 2018, she left behind a spectacular treasure in the form of keepsake quilts she had made for her family. To honor her memory, they displayed, on the pews at her funeral, all the quilts she had ever made.
As her family went through her things, they found another surprise. Margaret had kept a notebook indicating, for each quilt, whose quilt she was creating, the day she put it in the quilt frame, and the day she finished it.
Narratives that heal. A nearby community theater invited five local veterans and the wife of one of the veterans to participate in a five- to eight-week theater workshop where they created their personal narratives of wartime experiences. At the end of the workshop, in a public performance, they shared their war experiences as well as the physical, emotional, and psychological after-effects upon returning home. In Veterans Speak Up, the packed audience was deeply moved by their powerful stories that covered three different wars. https://chancetheater.com/read-oc-registers-coverage-voices-veterans-storytelling-project/
When we were young my mother told us stories about her everyday life, hardships, and triumphs, but those memories are fuzzy now. She never thought about writing them down, and neither did I or my siblings. Now I’m one of the few remaining links to my family’s history. Perhaps you are too.
Capturing memories of your life and those of your loved ones is one of the most important things you can do. Getting your story in writing helps to ensure it will survive as part of your legacy for many generations. But don’t wait. Whether it’s through photos, craft projects, original art by your loved ones, gather those memories in whatever shape and format you can manage to start. You and your family will be glad you did.
If you're ready to write your life story and want some encouragement, guidance, and support, join me and other like-minded storytellers in "Write Your Life Story, Two Pages at a Time." No writing skills required, just the desire to write from the heart to share with your family and loved ones. Sign up to be notified of the next class at https://www.florabrown.com/life-story-workshop