During the last five years of my father’s life, he began a series of letters and memos to my younger brother and me about his life. Dad was not a famous man, nor a particularly accomplished man – at least, not by standard measures of success. Nevertheless, his letters chronicling a childhood during the Depression in the midst of the Dust Bowl, his experiences as a infantryman on the battlefields of Europe, and life in the 1950s were an incredible record of an extraordinary life and time in the history of America.
After his death, his writing was collected, organized chronologically for easier reading, and bound together for each member of the family, an incomparable legacy to his grandchildren and their descendants. As his son, I take great comfort in knowing that Dad will be remembered as a good husband, father, and friend for generations to come.
As my father used to say, “We come into and go out of this world alone, but the quality of our lives depends upon the people we touch along the way.” Blood and bones, and stones and steel eventually fade into nothingness, but the love between parents and children, siblings, and spouses endures forever. It is the stories of love that remind us who we are and why we are here.
Everyone has a story and an audience eager to read, enjoy, and remember the details of each narrative. Writing your autobiography is an opportunity to reach across the boundaries of time and space, set the record straight, honor the ones you love, and celebrate the journey you have taken. It is the chance to create your own time capsule; an opportunity to leave your handprints on the walls of human existence, and to shout to the world, “I was here and I mattered!”
Autobiography vs. Memoir
Simply stated, an autobiography is an account of a person’s life, traditionally focusing on facts, dates, names, and places. Historically, autobiographies differed from personal memoirs in that the latter was generally limited to a particular episode or period in the author’s life, dealing more with memories and feelings, rather than mere facts.
In recent years, autobiographies have borrowed many of the techniques utilized by the memoirist, blending facts and feelings to create a complete story. Recent examples of the blending include the following:
- “Prague Winter”: The story of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright includes details of her childhood feelings and her family’s experiences leading up to and during World War II.
- “Dreams from My Father”: Written by President Barack Obama, the story includes scenes from his youth with drinking and drugs.
- “Open”: Author and professional tennis player Andre Agassi dissects his most decisive and bitterest defeats and admits to hating the game at times.
While literary purists continue to separate the two types of life story, there is little discernible difference for most readers. Not surprisingly, there is widespread agreement that the techniques transferred from one genre to the other have benefited each in that the stories are more readable and engage the reader to a greater degree.
Stories, written and spoken, are invaluable vehicles of communication; they are the link through which we share common experiences and transmit universal truths. A good autobiography or memoir, like any good story, allows us to relate to the author emotionally, share their skin , and understand the forces at work in their life as if we were experiencing the same tensions ourselves.
There is no required form or format to create your personal story. Memoirs and autobiographies can be oral or written, although the latter ensures that the author’s words are presented truthfully without subsequent storytellers’ interpretations of the details. An autobiography can be an extensive, multi-volumed narrative of a life, chronologically organized for ease of reading, or an unorganized collection of short stories. It may be intended for an audience of one, or for a multitude of potential readers scattered across the globe.
Writing a book may be therapeutic, informative, reconciling, and/or inspirational; the result can be a source of income or a hobby. While memoir writing is not subject to any technical conventions or boundaries beyond the intent of the author and the interest of the reader, autobiographies are expected to be factual even when they have emotional overtones.
In my dad’s case, his motive to write was to provide an explanation to his sons and grandchildren of how he came to be the person whom they identified as “Dad” or “Papa”, warts and all. His hope was that, by better understanding the events and people who had influenced his life, that any ill feelings or shortcomings between him and his reader would be forgiven or overlooked. I believe the act of writing enabled him to face death gracefully and without any regrets.
Reasons to Write Your Life Story
There are a lot of reasons to write a memoir or autobiography, not the least of which is the possibility that details of events will be forgotten or changed over time, the line between fact and memory becoming less distinct as the years go by. Writing forces us to think and rethink about our past and present surroundings, the people around us, relationships, and occasions that seemed ordinary at the time, but make our lives extraordinary. The following are just several reasons you should begin to write your life story.
1. Leave Your Mark
Translating and interpreting the circumstances and events of your life puts a figurative stake in the ground for all to see, adding color to a drawing or filling in the empty spaces of a form. Your autobiography defines you and is evidence that you are an active participant in the events occurring around you. Writing allows you to present your side of the story – your interpretation of facts in a manner that you can connect with readers and share your triumphs, disappointments, joys, and trials.
To my dad, a childhood of carrying a pocket knife, going barefooted to school, or sleeping on a blanket in the front yard during the hot summer nights in Texas were ordinary occurrences in the life of every little boy growing up in a small town. To his grandchildren reading his memoir 60 years later, it appears to be a life of excitement, freedom, and incredible adventures. Best of all, his memoir allowed them to see him as a tow-headed young boy like their friend down the street, not the balding old man, crippled by arthritis, whom they visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
2. Reconcile the Past
Many people encounter hard times at some point in their lives, often leaving residues of resentment, remorse, and regret. In some cases, the cause might be the actions, intended or not, of another person. Our disappointment may be the result of a suspected or real betrayal or a supposed failing on our part. Whatever the cause, such events can trigger bad feelings that fester for years, corroding relationships and eroding happiness.
Writing a memoir gives you an opportunity to revisit the past and reconsider the events and circumstances with the perspective of wisdom and experience. While there are villains in the world, much unhappiness and many toxic relationships stem from misunderstanding and miscommunication of facts or intent. You may discover during the process of self-examination that you and your feelings are as much the cause of estrangement as any second party. Confession and forgiveness of others and ourselves are often the outcome of a life story project.
3. Make Money
Are you a person who has led an extremely interesting life, perhaps a brain surgeon who rides bulls at the weekend rodeo and writes a popular murder mystery television show? Do you have the skill to turn the mundane of everyday life into humorous, unforgettable escapades of modern suburbia? In either case, you may discover that there is a plethora of customers willing to pay for the privilege of reading your memoir.
At least three different channels exist through which you might reach those interested customers:
- Traditional Book Publishers. Securing a publishing contract with a major traditional book publisher can be very difficult unless you are already a bestselling author, a celebrity, or have an extraordinary story to tell. Before approaching a publisher or a literary agent about publishing your memoir, ask yourself the following questions: If the reader doesn’t know you, why would he or she read your story? What is the theme of your story – transformational, inspirational, or cautionary? Why is your story different from other memoirs already available?
- Self-Publishing. Amazon and their Kindle readers have transformed the book industry. eBooks now outsell traditional hard-back print books with higher margins for retailers and authors alike. As a consequence, many authors are forgoing traditional publishing arrangements, electing to self-publish with the assistance of freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, and specialty marketing companies. My father’s book is currently being serialized, the first book published in August 2014 and the second to follow by year’s end. While it is unlikely to become a bestseller, I know my father would be pleased to know that his story was enjoyed by some, even if the royalties are small.
- Blogging/Freelance Article Writer. If you have the interest, style, and discipline, a second career as a writer awaits you. Each publication and website has its own editorial requirements, which can be very exacting. Payment is usually formulated according to word count, and is rendered when the article is published. A friend of mine (now a widow and a grandmother) with a wicked sense of humor and an ability to laugh at herself has turned her passion for writing Facebook posts about the trials of motherhood into regular contributions to a popular women’s magazine. Some writers have turned their memoirs into personal websites, complete with updates on different aspects of their lives – relationships, finances, lifestyle, and health – as retired seniors. They are monetizing their writing through tie-in marketing arrangements with other companies in return for recommending and selling their products.
4. Inform and Educate
Everyone, it seems, has a story that might interest others. Sometimes, the story is about our own lives and the events that shape us. Sometimes, the story is about other people the writer knows or his or her participation in situations that attract the public’s interest or curiosity.
Memoirs and autobiographies may appeal to very select audiences, such as the members of a single family, or they may become large, commercial successes, particularly if the writer is well-known or has been associated with a historically important event. However, commercial success is not the only measure of a memoir’s value.
An autobiography causes you to record the adventures, tragedies, and dramas of your life with insights that can be valuable to others. My dad’s experiences of anger about a lost childhood due to a misdiagnosed case of tuberculosis, as well as his angst in struggling to maintain a romantic relationship, resonate with many. The story touches readers, despite his simple descriptions and sometimes awkward phrasing, because they can visualize themselves in my father’s situation.
Is there a son who has not wondered if their father was ever scared or unsure? A mother who has not doubted her ability to be a good parent? These circumstances, and others like them, exist in everyone’s life, and the telling of your experiences and feelings in a similar situation is the real value of a memoir to writer and reader alike.
Writing your personal story can be a painful but cathartic exercise. Recalling times and people who were important in your life can stimulate simultaneous feelings of joy, nostalgia, and sadness. It is an exercise that requires hours of thoughtful reflection and introspection, and it can be the one of the most satisfying experiences of your life, reinvigorating old relations and spirituality.
Writing your memoir costs you little, but pays handsome rewards. Every day of delay is a day lost forever, and increases the possibility that your story will never be told. Do not wait until it is too late.
Do you have any tips for writing a memoir or autobiography?