Easy Ways to Begin Your Personal History

by Memoir Mentor on January 25, 2011

The thought of sitting down at my computer and writing my entire life story from birth-to-now makes me want to take a nap. It’s not that I don’t think writing a personal history is important: You know I do. It’s my current raison d’être, after all. Nevertheless, I would NEVER counsel anyone to approach personal history writing in that fashion. It’s an exercise in tedium and endurance that reminds me of running a marathon.

What’s more, who would want to read such a tome? No one.  So don’t even go there.

A memoir worth reading involves a more artistic, thoughtful approach requiring you to carefully select specific experiences, events, and impressions and creatively shape them into a story that reveals your understanding of what your life is about. This writing approach is more akin to choreographing a ballet than slogging through that grueling marathon.

No one can possibly know how to begin such a project at the outset. As I tell my students, it’s only in the actual writing of it that you figure out what you want to write. I wish there were an easier way. You learn a ballet a step at a time; only then do you grasp the full choreography. I read Phyllis Theroux’ sublime memoir The Journal Keeper recently and found this:

Night after night I would spin memories into paragraphs that didn’t have a larger context: a stand of cockleweeds behind the summerhouse that blazed with dew in the early morning, a conversation with my grandmother, the way it felt to be alone on the playground when everybody else seemed so effortlessly popular. Later many of these fragments would find a place in a memoir. But before I wrote for publication, I simply wrote—like a woman in labor who wants to give birth to something inside that is ready to be born.” (The Journal Keeper, p 6-7)

Phylllis Theroux kept a journal for several decades, writing down her reactions to life experiences, finding meaning and understanding about who she is. Along the way, not only was she recording incidents from her life, she was teaching herself how to write.

Starting a journal is a good way to approach writing your life story. Here are some other ideas:

  • Make a list of the stories and life experiences that should be included in your personal history. Put a star next to the ones you consider the most important. Look at the starred items and choose the one that interests you most at that particular moment. Write that story. Spend a little time—but not a lot—reworking it, then put it away. Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect. Right now you’re merely getting some stories under your belt. So pick another potential story on your list and write that one.
  • Create a list of the turning points in your life—the times your life changed direction. These may be crisis points—illness, death, divorce, etc.—or times you ventured into new territory—marriage, divorce, parenthood, career changes, etc. Arrange these turning points in chronological order. Study what you’ve compiled. Jot down notes about each item: How did this incident change your life? How much control did you have over what happened? What did you learn from it? How are you better because of it? What do you regret? This exercise will help you develop some understanding about yourself and the shape of your life. Start writing stories about these turning points because you’ll want to include these incidents in your life.
  • Browse through a photo album and look for potential story ideas. Take notes. Add these story ideas to your list of stories that must be told.

  • You’ll find more ideas in a future post. In the meantime, make room in your life this year for writing. I’ll end with a quote from another Thoreau: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.” –Henry David Thoreau

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Free Genealogy Guide January 30, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Your suggestions to review photos and memories and make lists of turning points seem like ways of reliving your life before writing about it.

    2 Memoir Mentor January 31, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Both activities serve as excellent memory prompts that remind you of incidents you can include in your personal history. The turning point exercise is essential preliminary work for writers who want to understand the main themes and shape of their lives. We all go to school, go to work, etc., but it’s the turning points that truly shape our destiny, offering us new challenges that make us grow, teaching us coping skills, and requiring us to make important decisions. My students tell me this exercise helps them come to a better understanding of what their lives are all about. Insights like this help anyone write a more focused and nuanced personal history than one that merely recounts events in a chronological order–this happened, then this happened–with no particular shape or perspective.

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