Have you been putting off writing your memoir, stories from your life, or family history? Are your children, grandchildren, and even friends pressing you to put aspects of your life in writing? When you tell a story from your life, do people say, “You should write that down?”
Everyone has valuable stories from their past that are interesting, engaging, even exciting. These are the stories about your life or your family’s life that are important to write down and share. Even if it’s not your intention, this kind of writing is educational—it tells present and future generations how it was “back then,” what you enjoyed about your life, your family’s unique traditions, the challenges you faced, and how you overcame obstacles.
But it can feel daunting to get all this down on paper, seemingly impossible to figure out where to begin, or once you’ve begun, how to continue.
Here are some tips and ideas for starting, continuing, or finishing your memoir, life story, or family histories projects — and have fun in the process.
First, know these differences:
Autobiography – describes your life from birth to the present
Biography – describes someone else’s life from birth to the present
Memoir – describes a portion or an aspect of your life, such as your teen years or your career
Life Stories – shorter essays about your life or your family
Family History – longer stories about your family.
Note: Family history is different from genealogy, which traces family relationships from ancestors to descendants. Typically genealogies are portrayed in a family tree.
Decide which of these approaches is right for you.
What Should You Write About?
Try your hand at one or some of these subjects.
- The houses you’ve lived in, the trips you’ve taken, the pets you’ve loved.
- Advice someone gave you when you really needed it.
- Advice you’re glad you didn’t take!
- Rearing your children.
- Participating in political or civic activities.
- A profile of a parent, or special teacher, or neighbor.
- How you survived a crisis or difficult period in your life.
- Think of stories and anecdotes that circulated in your family such as the diligent uncle who injured his hand and had to stop working; an aunt’s inedible casserole she insisted on bringing to Thanksgiving dinner every year; the jokes or phrases that never failed to send family members into peals of laughter.
Or, you might want to tackle tougher topics, such as:
- Facing a childhood bully.
- The worse teacher you ever had or the toughest academic subject you ever had.
- Something you’ve struggled with for years.
- What you would do differently, if you could live your life over.
The topics you can write about are almost limitless.
So, how do you get started?
- Go through old diaries, photos, postcards and letters. They will stir forgotten memories.
- Rummage through the attic and neglected cupboards to find ticket stubs from shows or dances you attended, your high school or college diploma, and any awards you earned.
- Ask friends and family members to help you remember details, incidents, and events.
When it’s time to write, don’t consider writing a book. Instead, think of little anecdotes, short essays. Maybe remembrances of holidays in your childhood home, or the time you were moving and were halfway down driveway before you noticed you forgot to put your pet in the car.
Taking a class dedicated to writing memoir, stories from your life, or family history is an excellent way to start and keep you writing. You’ll be able to share what you’re working on with others and get useful feedback, insights, and suggestions from them. Or like many people, you might prefer to work online or in-person with a nonfiction expert with experience in the type of stories you want to write—memoir, stories from your life, or family history. This coach can help you choose your topic(s), organize your project, find the right words to tell your stories, and keep you on track so you can experience the joy of reaching the finish line.
Make It Interesting
You want those who read your work to be engaged in what you have to tell them. You want them to look forward to reading from the first page to the last. How do you do that?
Include the senses, not just sight, but smells, which are very evocative of the past; sounds, and textures, tastes (flavors).
Include emotion. How did a particular event make you feel?
Use “juicy” words, that is, precise words with power and interest, rather than weak words such as “very,” “many,” and “nice.”
To stay inspired, remember: It’s not just a memoir, a story from your life, or a family history you’re creating. It’s a legacy!
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