How to Write a Must-Read Memoir for Your Family

By Richard Campbell Premium

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When Michael Jones was a child, he lived in an isolated region in northern Maine, far away from his extended family. He remembers looking up at the dark, swirling skies one afternoon as a 6-year-old and thinking, “It’s going to be a lonely life.” His story is a universal one: America is a migratory nation. Families are geographically separated, and our kitchen table stories are getting lost in all the turmoil of change.

A quick scan of the internet will find very little in terms of maintaining inter-generational connections beyond social media. The few resources on the subject suggest just the usual platitudes: Spend more time together. Do things together. Create new memories together. But for most Americans, this is not the reality. Social visits are formal and stilted, and may happen once or twice in a year.

So what can we do? How can we reopen the floodgates of wisdom that pass between generations? Dr. Cheryl Svensson, director of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies, has spent more than 20 years working with older adults who want to write their life story. During that time, she’s noticed an increase in interest in life stories or memoir writing.

“More and more older people understand that unless they write their story, it will be lost,” she says. “Or as one man said, ‘I’ll just be a name scribbled on the back of a faded photograph.’

“We are social, story-telling humans. Through our stories, our intergenerational connections can be kept strong, even with great-great-grandchildren we may never meet,” Svensson says. “Writing your life story is a gift you leave for the future.”

The best book you’ll ever read is the one you write—your life story—and it can be as easy as writing a love letter.

—Richard Campbell

One proven way to help connect generations is by sharing your life story with your children and grandchildren. Most of us are not professional writers. So we quickly become discouraged when starting to write our stories. We worry about dialogue, grammar and style. Ultimately, we don’t want to be judged.

But let’s take a moment and reframe this into something far more positive. The best book you’ll ever read is the one you write—your life story—and it can be as easy as writing a love letter. Here’s how to write your memoir.

Step 1: Face your Fears

“But I don’t have much of a story,” you might say to yourself. This is a common refrain. But imagine yourself in a room full of people, each of whom has written a life story and entered it into a giant computer. Then, voila, the machine creates one single life story that represents everyone in that room.

What would that story be about? It would show one—just one—emerging theme: courage. We are all survivors, and to survive, we have courage. And where there is courage, there are stories. Lots of them.

Another typical fear: “I’m not a writer.” Well, here’s the good news. If you have ever composed a love letter or written an email, you can tell your story. You are a writer.

But what about your writing style? We’ve all heard how famous authors have their own unique tone. You say loud and clear: “That’s not me.” But that love letter? It was the authentic you pouring it out from your heart.

The real question now is “How can I connect with multiple generations?” The answer: Write as you speak. Ignore the critic on your shoulder, and just write as you would talk. Let the dialogue flow like a good conversation. Forget grammar. Forget spelling. Just get your thoughts down. You can edit later. Now imagine your unique voice reaching across from one generation to the next, far more powerfully than social media could.

Perhaps the most challenging part of writing a compelling life story is getting started. The most obvious way is to begin at birth and move chronologically through your life experiences. But this doesn’t work. Pick up any recent memoir and look at the first few pages. Rarely do they start at birth. Instead they are usually in medias res, a Latin term meaning “into the middle of things.”

Step 2: Structure Your Story Around Themes

Instead, let’s take a look at one writing process that can make your life-story project enjoyable and manageable: a guided autobiography.

A guided autobiography takes a do-it-yourself approach to structuring your life story, featuring short vignettes. Each two- to three-page story focuses on specific topics that include family, work, self-image, spirituality and life goals. In a guided autobiography, theme—not time—drives your life story.

You can select from dozens of basic themes based on your personal life experience. For example, some people will find a story in the “personal values” theme, while others may find something more relevant in “life after retirement.”

So where do you start? Identify a key branching point in your past. We all have hundreds of these moments that change us in a significant way. Some are obvious (parents’ divorce, a serious disease), while others are more subtle but equally important (a random day in school when you realized you had a passion for a favorite subject).

Choose one such event to get your creative juices flowing. Compose a short (two- to three-page) story about that event, and write as if you were speaking. You’ve probably already retold this story many times before—the only difference is that now you’re doing so in writing.

Repeat this same process for as many life themes as you wish. Add some photos, and the result will be a completed personal life story, suitable for family and friends.

To get you started, I’ve outlined 10 core themes that you can center your life story around. For each, write a brief paragraph on an experience from your past. When you’re finished, you’ll have a structural overview of your life story that you can flesh out later.

1. Forks in the Road

As we briefly discussed earlier, these are the key turning points in our lives. We all have several: high school graduation, a first job, a first serious romantic relationship, or the birth of a child. Major or (seemingly) minor, these events will always be important to us. Which of your own forks in the road experiences stand out? Choose one that happened when you were a child or adolescent.

2. Family and Self

We all have family: the people you grew up with, nurtured you, cared for you. They could have been your parents or other guardians, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles or even neighbors. For some people, a family of friends is most important. When you think back to your original family—in whatever form it existed—what comes to mind? When were they there for you? What did those relationships mean to you?

3. The Meaning of Wealth

Our financial status is often a lifelong challenge towards equilibrium. We seek balance between our lifestyles and bank accounts. What does money mean to you? Security? Power? Freedom? Has this always been your thinking, or has it changed through the years? What did you learn from times in which you didn’t have enough money? How did you scrape by?

4. My Life’s Work

Our work helps define who we are. It can give us purpose, showcase our talents or simply put food on the table. Our life’s work can involve one job or several, and you may have loved or hated the work you did. How does your work impact your family life, identity or overall worldview?

5. Self-Image and Well-Being

We navigate the world through the filter of our health—both emotional and physical. Throughout life, health is never neutral: It works either for us or against us. How has your health impacted you over the years? Has it influenced your decisions? How has it challenged you?

6. The Male-Female Equation

Gender plays a part in nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us see ourselves as primarily one sex, though the boundaries can become blurry over time. What male-female relationship expectations did you learn as a child? Did they remain the same or change over the years? How do you define yourself through gender identity, especially as you get older?

7. The End of Life

Everything ends. As mentioned before, it takes courage to live—we are all survivors. Looking into your future, what are your thoughts about death and dying? Does life come to a stopping point, or do you believe there to be something that lives beyond? What rituals do you expect will happen upon your death? What do you perceive as a good death?

8. From Secular to Spiritual

A culture’s history is often a reflection of its beliefs. From animism to Zoroastrianism, we live our lives according to local and regional traditions—even if we’re part of larger religious traditions or movements. Many of us have drifted away from such beliefs or accepted new ones since childhood. Your faith journey likely can’t be captured by name or date, but how has it impacted your life? Have you ever had a spiritual crisis, or questioned your faith?

9. My Life Goals

It’s never too late to create new goals. These can be short-, medium-, or long-range— everything counts. Even uncompleted goals can provide meaning, as the greatest learning comes through the journey. Have you undertaken major life goals? How has this process played out? What goals have you had to abandon or modify, and what new goals might you want to create?

10. My Message

This is your life’s icing on the cake. It is an opportunity to pass along your legacy to your children, grandchildren or community. What were your most valuable life lessons? What will your legacy be to those who matter to you?

Step 3: Put It All Together

These 10 themes represent a significant portion of your life story, but they’re just the starting point. Once you have shared some stories related to these themes, something interesting happens. A single emerging theme comes to light. For some people, it may be triumphing over early life challenges. For others, it may reflect a life of faith.

Then, from this single emerging theme will come the title of your story. For example, if you have lived a life of helping others as a caretaker, one title could be My Life: For Others. And once you have a title and some direction, fleshing out the rest of your life story will be easy.

We can’t bring back the old days and old ways, but we can forge new inroads. Writing our stories is one proven way.

—Richard Campbell

Family lore, passed down through generations, has become more challenging to obtain and preserve in recent decades. But with the Baby Boomer movement towards capturing memories, guided autobiography and memoir writing in general have become saving graces of that once-upon-a-time activity called person-to-person interaction. They are reasonable facsimiles that can soften the edge of social media saturation.

Your life story is a powerful gift to children and grandchildren. It will never replace walking a country road with Grandpa or listening to Grandma’s wisdom first-hand, but it is a gift that keeps giving.

We can’t bring back the old days and old ways, but we can forge new inroads. Writing our stories is one proven way.

Richard Campbell is co-author of Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story and teaches life-story-writing sessions.

A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.