Recently my friend Cindy Johnson expressed frustration that she hasn’t recorded her richly-lived life in journals. “Now I’ll have to resort to writing my memoirs!” she lamented. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Whether you’ve kept regular diaries or not, you may easily find yourself like Cindy—wanting to write your life story but overwhelmed by the prospect. There are so many reasons to write: to share life lessons, relive cherished memories, introduce ourselves to future generations, or acknowledge the hand of the Lord in our lives. But life isn’t just one story. It’s a series of stories about events, people, circumstances, struggles, and growth. Some of these stories unfold simultaneously and some aren’t over yet. Some are painful; some are half-forgotten. We’re not even sure what some of them mean. So where do we start?
Start with What’s Interesting
Some people think they should begin their story-telling with the story of their births. But you don’t remember your own birth, and it’s likely not your most interesting story, anyway. Don’t bore yourself at the outset. Instead, begin with a memory that is:
· interesting or meaningful to you right now;
· clear and vivid; or
· on your mind lately.
The point is to get something on paper without getting stalled by hazy memories, raw emotions, or boredom.
Write a few of these interesting, vivid memories before attempting a full life history. You’ll get your memories flowing and find your story-telling voice. You’ll be drawn into your own story, which will give you the motivation to tell more.
Fill in the Blanks
Don’t forget to give your stories some substance. Do you describe your “characters” (including you)? Do you provide meaningful details: how something smelled or looked, or what you thought of Uncle Merle’s toupee? Who changes in the story, and how and why? (That’s the meaning of the story, which you may not even discover until you write it.)
After you’ve got a few stories under your belt, consider putting them into a logical, readable order. What do you see emerging? A narrative that follows you through every step of life? Several episodes about the most important events? Stories about family relationships or friendships? There’s no rule that says you need to chronicle every part of your life. You might not even want to.
At some point, you may want to fill in some blanks between the tales you’ve told. You may want to create a timeline to organize and prioritize your writing. Consider using a life-story journal like my new book, My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories, which gives you story-telling tips and prompts, and an overall structure for organizing your memories.
A story about your childhood—or teenage or mid-life years—will include the people who shaped it. Do you have the right to share their private pains and joys? Should you describe sibling rivalries, parents’ character flaws, or a spouse’s temper?
Each writer will solve these dilemmas differently. It may be possible to write around someone’s secret that really isn’t ours to share, or doesn’t bear directly on our lives. When someone’s personal life directly affected our lives, we can still consider what we say with compassion for those who might in turn be affected by what we say.
Don’t Forget the Happy Stories
Every life has times worth celebrating. Moments when testimony and character are built, when love and loyalty and faith are rewarded, people show their best selves, or a hard-won goal has been achieved. Moments when we feel the Lord’s grace, or the mercy or kindness of others. These are all worth recording—both for our own sake and the sake of those who might read our stories.
Are happy stories boring? Not if you write them well. Use the same techniques mentioned above: meaningful details, characters with strengths and weaknesses, and honest portrayal of how and why people changed. Include details that build suspense or really show what you were up against. Don’t forget the funny parts. Tell how you felt at the turning point of the story—grateful, humbled, speechless, changed, surprised, moved, confused, angry, blindsided—and why.
Just Do It
Remember, nobody can tell your story like you can. You were there. You know what you felt. Even if you have had the same lifestyle or career pattern as most of the people you know, your experience of these will be unique. Your conversations, moments of clarity, humor, triumphs and trials all have their own special flavor. The way you reacted to a chain of events is always your own story.
So get started. Write something down. Then write something else. One story is better than none; two stories are even better, and so forth. You don’t have to tell your whole life in one sitting. Tell it the same way you lived it—one story at a time.
Sunny McClellan Morton is a Latter-day Saint heritage writer and author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. Learn more about her at sunnymorton.com.
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