How to write your life story

A new year perched dramatically on the horizon seems a very good time to reflect on life, past achievements and future potential – something that has become glaringly evident in my many end-of-year-approaching conversations.  

Following my telling people I’m a writer and that I’ve been doing some wonderful memoir-ghostwriting, they sigh wistfully.

“Oh, I’ve been thinking about writing a few life stories down…” they’ll muse, and when I ask what’s stopping them, they’ll usually reply “time”, closely followed by something like, “I wouldn’t know where to begin!”  

That old adage that everybody has a book in them is true – even if you think your life is pretty uneventful, dig a little deeper and you’ll soon discover we’ve all got very different stories to tell and opinions to share. 

For unlikely ‘life story’ inspiration, just look at the parade of reality TV contestants that grace our screens every year; each of them equipped with a backstory designed to twang heartstrings and resonate with their audience.  How about the endless glut of epic-length celebrity autobiographies, some of them by people who are barely out of nappies?  Surely you could do better than them!

Well, with some forethought and a bit of planning, you can.  I speak from experience when I say that well-told personal memoirs are rich, immersive and rewarding both to write and to read, and they make a wonderful keepsake if you’d like to leave an enduring legacy for people to enjoy for years to come…even if the only audience you intend to write them for are members of your family.

Getting started

The best memoirs have been carefully thought out, so this is the first place to start if you’re considering writing your life story.  In fact, I recommend not writing anything at all in the beginning, just spend some extended time thinking over the life events you’d like to include in the story.  This is what you’re doing, telling a story, just like you would if you were writing a novel – only with personal memoirs, the compelling plot line is already in your head!

Think of yourself as the main character in a novel

What obstacles have you met in life so far, and how did you deal with them?  What events changed you, for better or worse?  People love reading about change, because change is where you also tend to find emotion.

Write with emotional honesty

Remember our reality TV show contestants!  What they often do well (albeit a bit too cloyingly for some) is speaking ‘from the heart’ in a way that really resonates with people, inviting the audience to root for their success on the show.  If you speak from the heart, you’ll have readers rooting for you, too.  Try using dialogue for those really emotional story moments.

Ask yourself ‘why’

Is there an ultimate aim for your story?  Are you looking to make readers understand a specific experience you went through, in a way that might help others cope with the same feelings, or do you simply want to give future generations of your family an idea of who you are and how you lived?  Give some thought to the ending of the story, and how you’d like your readers to feel when they reach the final page.

Make your story relatable

Regardless of the subject, readers will enjoy your story if you tell it in a way that they can relate to.  This goes right back to writing with emotional honesty, and this is the key to people putting your book down and feeling that they’ve had a rewarding reading experience.

If you feel that you’ve been through some unique experiences that aren’t relatable, try reading fiction for inspiration.  For example, you might think a married couple both changing sex would be pretty unrelatable, but in ‘Sex and Other Changes’ the late, great David Nobbs tells this story in such a heartwarmingly human and natural way that I was left finishing the book with the impression that it was a simple – and wonderfully relatable – story about people.

Set small targets

Once you begin writing, set yourself small, unintimidating targets.  Half an hour a day is a good place to start – and in that half hour, simply write.  The story will tell itself naturally, and when you read it back you’ll know instinctively what to improve, what to add, and what to take out altogether.

Writing your life story can be a rich, satisfying and hugely cathartic experience (some of my ghostwriting clients have called our storytelling meetings ‘counselling sessions!’)…so if you’ve got a personal tale bursting to be told, why not set yourself a new year’s resolution and give it a try? 

Of course, if you need any more help getting started, please get in touch for a friendly chat!