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:
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