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 If you’re like some of my students, you may wonder if you can remember enough of your life to write a meaningful story about it. There may be vast stretches of time you can’t account for. For some of us, after we finished school and settled down with a family, whole decades seemed to fly by in a blur. 
Actually, retrieving memories is not as difficult as it may seem.


      Browse through old photo albums. Notice the friends you played with, the vacations you took, the houses you lived in, the furniture in the background, the clothes you wore, the way you wore your hair, the cars you drove, the pets you owned. Jot down memories that come to you.

      Look through school annuals. Note the clubs you belonged to, the sports you played, the dances you attended, the friends and teachers who were important in your life. Read the notes your friends wrote to you on the end pages.

      Rummage through old memory books, scrapbooks, keepsake boxes.

      Call your siblings and other relatives and reminisce about the past. You’ll probably find you don’t remember the same incidents in quite the same way.

      Visit homes where you lived, schools you attended, cemeteries where loved ones are buried, and other locales meaningful in your life. Sit in front of these places for a while and write down memories that occur to you.

      Make lists about yourself:  the cars, homes, and pets you owned, the schools you attended, your favorite books, movies, songs, foods, etc. List the major turning points in your life.  

      Draw a floor plan of your childhood home.

      Create a chronology of your life. Make a chart with two columns. In one column list events and incidents from your life. In the second column assign a date to the event, however approximate. Make a note of which incidents you definitely want to include in your life story.

Choose a Format

It can be confusing. You have all kinds of memories floating around in your head, memories you want to preserve for your descendants in some kind of written format. What format should you choose? Autobiography? Memoir? A collection of assorted stories? A hand-written, six-page life summary that you stuff in an envelope alongside your will? What works best for you?

Determining the focus and scope of your life story may be the hardest decision you make, one that can keep your good intentions forever simmering on the back burner. Before you fade at the starting gate, let’s look at your options:

  • Autobiography
    Most of us are familiar with the format. You may have hand-written a ten-pager in grade school that began with something like “I was born on June 19, 1944, in Concord, Massachusetts, and ended on page ten with “Now I am twelve years old and a sixth grader at Ford Avenue Elementary School.” Essentially, that’s the autobiographical format---a chronological narrative that traces the life course of the author from birth to the time of authorship. As the autobiographer, you get to pick and choose what incidents you want to include and how you want to organize your presentation. 

    One option to consider is a combination of both methods, a chronological-topical format. With this approach, you organize your life into five or six time segments (childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle years, golden years, etc.), and then discuss the major events that occurred during those time periods by topics, which you identify by chapter subheadings (schooling, friends, jobs, family, and vacations).
  • Memoir
    Most published life stories on bookstore shelves are memoirs rather than autobiographies. A memoir generally recounts only a small portion of the author’s life—her childhood, for example. In some cases, the writer carefully chooses specific incidents, impressions, and memories that contribute to her overall purpose, which may be literary, thematic, or something else. Memories tend to be artfully arranged, with more emphasis on style than allegiance to fact and history. Frequently, a memoir is shaped by a particular theme, such as political involvement, religious or career experiences, or overcoming adversity. See Writer’s Toolbox for a list of memoirs that will show you how the pros do it. 

  • A Collection of Stories
    Maybe you’d just like to write down a series of incidents that relate to one specific aspect of your life, such as a group of stories about your family vacations or holiday celebrations. Or, perhaps you'd like to write an anthology of stories dealing with career experiences or faith-promoting incidents. The advantage of this format is that each story can stand alone, as a separate chapter. You needn't worry about tying everything together or making incidents fit chronologically.

I Advise

Pick a manageable project, one that you will enjoy writing and one that fits within your time constraints. If you consider yourself a novice at this, don’t tackle a multi-generation history of your family. You’ll soon find yourself in over your head, likely to give up in despair.                

No matter what your format, your life story should let your readers understand who you are and how you lived. You need to be in your story—not just your experiences, but your feelings about them. What a shame to go to the effort required to write your life story merely to end up with a recitation of events that fails to reveal your heart and soul—the inner you.



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