Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with some lovely church ladies about writing personal histories. I only had about twenty minutes, so we didn’t talk as much as I would’ve liked, but it was still a delightful mini-class (I thought, anyway. They may disagree, but at least they were too polite to let me know it.) I love personal histories. Memoir is such a wonderful genre, straddling between fiction and nonfiction. I particularly enjoy the histories I have of my family members. Though the stories I have deal nearly exclusively with people who have already passed away, most of them before I was born, even, I feel like I know them very well. Since I believe in an afterlife structured around continuing, eternal families, I like the thought that when I pass away and see these people again, I will know something about what their experience in mortality was like. So I value the family histories I have.
I also have reason to regret the holes in that history. I don’t have any stories about my maternal grandmother’s life, though I knew her personally and know some facts about her life. When I was going through my divorce, I felt like most of my family couldn’t relate. I thought that my grandmother might, though. She passed away shortly afterwards, so by the time I was ready to talk, she was already gone. And she never (as far as I can tell) wrote down anything about those parts of life that made me feel like she could understand. I wanted to ask her about patience, forgiveness, healing, the Atonement, and so many other things. Now, most personal histories don’t cover those topics, but something is more than nothing, right? I just wish I had even some journal entries, some shopping lists, some… somethings. You know?
So, like I said, personal histories are important to me, so I really psyched to talk about this last week. I got all of the information for my class from a class I went to sponsored by our stake (a whole bunch of congregations in the same region), and I think that instructor got her information from this talk and this talk. So my “handout” isn’t exactly plagiarism, but it’s definitely not entirely original to me. If you’d like to try your hand at writing your life story (just the basics, in just an hour!), feel free to use the guidelines (basically, the handout I passed out in my class, which doubled as my class outline) below. Happy Writing!
Here is one way to begin writing a life story:
- Set aside an hour– use a timer to ease your mind– and find a comfortable place to write.
- Use whatever writing medium works best for you: computer, typewriter, paper and pen. If writing is physically difficult, try recording your voice and asking someone else to transcribe it.
- Begin with your name. Simply write, “My name is…” and then tell everything you know about your name. How did you get it? What does it mean? Were you named after anybody? Does anyone famous share your name?
- Now write down everything you know about when and where you were born. Start with date and location, but add whatever other details you know: weather, time of day, day of week, etc.
- List the names, birth places, and birth dates of your parents and siblings.
- Name the schools you attended, including college or other post-secondary training. You may be tempted to begin a long story about the time you and your best friend got lost collecting for a paper drive, or some other college kookiness. Resist! Budget about five minutes per bullet, or you will run out of time and might not ever finish.
- List the organizations you joined as a child — Primary, VBS, Brownies, Boy Scouts, whatever. Did you play the tuba in a marching band? Did you start the first-ever chapter of Gouda Lovers at your high school?
- List important spiritual milestones or other significant dates. When were you adopted? When were you baptized? Consider adding volunteer positions or church callings.
- List the different places you lived and when you lived there. What brought you there? Why did you leave?
- List the date, location, and other significant details of your wedding & marriage. Then list your children and their birth dates. Mention important changes in your family — a child’s marriage, deaths, divorces, graduations, and so forth. Remember, keep to the bare bones of your life. You have only one hour, so stick to the facts. You can flesh things out in later “hours” if you like.
- Describe how you’ve spent your adult life — at work, at home, and everywhere else.
Ta-Da! All done! If you like, print out a copy and slide it into a lovely binder kept for the sole purpose of holding all the stories of your life. This will make it easier to add more stories later.
If you decide that the bare bones story of your life is a little too bare, here some prompts to help you flesh things out a bit more.
- Write a story about an event in your childhood. The story doesn’t have to have earth-shaking significance. It just has to mean something to you. Begin like this: “I remember when I was seven…” You will be amazed at what you remember!
- Elaborate on any of the topics from your first history.
- Consider adding photographs. Describe the context of what the photo captures.
- Write down your testimony or your spiritual odyssey.
- How about a romance chapter? You can focus on your current relationship or describe more broadly your (mis)adventures in love.
- Write down memories of your children. Reminisce about their babyhood and the cute things they said and did.
- Write about yourself as you see yourself. How do you feel and what do you think? Describe yourself, not just physically, but with other interesting details: that you cry over sentimental movies, love baseball, hate beets, or have freakishly large thumbs (looking at you, Julie Barcroft).
- Write about your best Christmas, summer vacation, or annual family outing; write about any holiday or vacation, for that matter.
- Make lists. For example, what are your favorite foods?
- Write about items in your home that have a special meaning to you. If your son cut his teeth on the back of a chair, write about it. And mention any furniture handed down to you from a loved one.
- Write a one-page annual update of the highlights of the past year (Christmas Brag letter, anyone?)
Gradually, you will write a life history rich in detail, but don’t get overwhelmed. Just write one hour, one story, at a time.