Do you look back on your own life and think it would make a great memoir? Have you had an amazing life story that seems to have a narrative arc already built in? Do you have an incredible personal story that you think should be committed to paper? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be contemplating writing a book about your life.
Of course, writing any true story – let alone a book about your life – brings some unique challenges. First: how can you begin writing when you’re faced with your entire life story? It is, understandably, a daunting task. That’s far too much material to just free write – right? So how much planning should you do before you start writing? And how can you give shape and meaning to the randomness of all that happens in a person’s life?
There are other issues that can leave people who are writing a book about real life feeling stuck. Paradoxically, having so much material to work with can feel paralysing and, without proper direction, lead to writer’s block. Plus, self reflection can itself become exhausting!
Then there are smaller questions about the writing process and techniques. For example, should you be writing accurate dialogue, when what people actually say is often so prosaic?
Look at the stories that inspire you
If you want to create your own life story, book-writing is a great way to record it. To get started writing a book about your own story, have a look at some great examples of life writing. Just as we suggest a novelist learn from a fiction book, it makes sense that you would learn from a story about a real life.
Take other people’s life writing or a nonfiction narrative that caught your eye. Find a great memoir or autobiography – one that recounts a personal history or a scandalous true story as scintillatingly as fiction. Then consider what the memoir focuses on: does it skim through key events in the person’s life? Does it recount their life history briefly, then pick out a few moments or one memory to highlight the fuller story and the overall theme? Or does it really attempt to tell the entire story, with all the details of their everyday life as well as the more exciting life events?
Don’t worry if the thought of autobiographical writing seems scary; many writers struggle to write about their personal experiences, even in fiction. And when you’re presenting true stories of your life, when you’re portraying family members or recounting a particular memory that might be painful or sensitive, and you’re saying loud and proud that these are all real-life events... Well, it’s a brave decision!
Take Alice’s advice
Alice approaches her position as a writing coach collaboratively, working hard to help authors find their voices and follow their passions. If you’re working on memoir, YA or books for children, Alice may be the writing coach for you: she is not only the award-winning author of five novels and six books for younger readers, she’s also a bestselling ghostwriter, with a wealth of experience in writing memoirs.
If you want to turn your personal story into a book about your life, be sure to read Alice’s tips on getting down your life’s story.
How I came to memoir writing
I came to memoir writing and biography in a roundabout way, when my agent reached out for a writer. The life story in question was that of a young woman, Carley, who had died of an aggressive cancer. The publisher and her family needed someone to bring together the raw material of her life. Immediately, I recoiled. I didn’t know how to write a true story like that: I wrote fiction. I had no idea how to structure her particular experience. I couldn’t fathom how I would start writing.
Despite my initial misgivings, as I sat with the idea, I was pulled to Carley’s story for all of the reasons that I at first pulled away. The intimacy and bravery of her life story were compelling, and writing her life experiences and unique story would be different and challenging. The more I learned about Carley, the more I saw a way to write her book.
Figuring out her coming-of-age story and how best to tell it began a whole new writing life for me. Now, as well as my own books, I work as a ghost, anonymously, listening to the life stories of famous and not-so-famous people, to find the overarching theme of their memoirs.
Some weeks later, I found myself in Carley’s old bedroom, the bed still made. Her pink walls showcased a quotation about dance. Her blog was a testament to the boy she loved. She was real and rare. Figuring out her coming-of-age story and how best to tell it began a whole new writing life for me. Now, as well as my own books, I work as a ghost, anonymously, listening to the life stories of famous and not-so-famous people, to find the overarching theme of their memoirs.
The rewards of writing a life story
The memoirs I’ve written for other authors have been some of the most extraordinary highlights of my writing life. Being a ghost has taught me how to write better. I’ve learned how to listen for the narrative arc that every story needs, deepening my understanding of how to write and structure the work. It’s helped me understand how every story has a central message and to find an underlying theme in an entire life. It’s helped me craft more complex portraits and create strong characters – even in the supporting characters of somebody’s life story.
Being a ghost has taught me how to write better.
Listening to someone’s autobiography and helping them share it on the page has also given me a lot of ideas on how to help you write a book about your life story. Here are five tips that I’ve learned along the way as you write your memoir.
Tip One: More is more, to start with
Life is long if you know how to live it well.
Marcus Aurelius said something like this, and what it means here is that your life is going to be absolutely chockablock of stories and happenings. While not every moment of your entire life story can make it into the book – in fact, most of this raw material won’t ever see the final pages – at this early stage, you don’t yet know which bits you want.
When I start a ghost project, I invite my author to talk. And talk. And talk. We want to dig deep. What this means for you is to be open as you start writing. Play. Free write. Make notes of the important moments you might want to explore. Make notes of the moments you’re not sure about. Make notes of the moments that you think won’t be interesting at all. Unpack those memories, as Mary Karr advises in her beautiful book The Art of Memoir:
But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk – how did so much fit into such a small space?
―Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Your life is rich and full and as you begin, explore it all. You’ll find the overall narrative later. For now, it’s about creative ways to dig into one’s life and find the fascinating nuggets. We’ll have some prompts in our memoir group over the weeks to help you do this work, so make sure you sign up for a writing course at The Novelry if you haven’t yet!
Tip Two: Chronological order is a helpful tool
As writers, we often seek to do something unique and ground-breaking.
For instance, lots of writers want to bounce back and forth through time as they write a book of their life’s story. That’s because this is how memory works.
But often, with memoir, the life lived itself is the unique and ground-breaking element. A simple structure can actually make it easier to navigate the story. Not always, but following a timeline of chronological order is a very useful tool to start your writing process – keeping in mind our ‘tools not rules’ approach at The Novelry.
Remember, it doesn’t mean that your final structure will follow this pattern; just that it helps to put your life story in order as you start your exploration into autobiographical writing.
Tip Three: Begin with it all, but then focus in
Once you’ve begun thinking about all the life experiences you have, written some notes, and looked at a possible order, you get to think more about what your entire book will be.
Will it cover from your birth to present? Will it be before that, even? Every relative and ancestor? Or will it be a glorious summer that you discovered yourself on a trip to the Arctic?
Start playful and open, then consider a beginning and an end.
Memoir tends to focus in on a shorter phase, autobiography tends to be your whole life. You get to choose.
As I suggest, start playful and open, then consider a beginning and an end.
Let’s think about how other writers have approached writing a book about their life. A memoir I love is one by Fred Sasakamoose, a hockey player from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nations Reserve on Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan. ‘All I wanted to do was, I wanted to play,’ he says. ‘Play the game. Love the game. But I never thought about history.’
Yet his memoir is an essential read of how history impacted his life, from when he was a small child to a man looking back.
Contrast the timeline of Sasakamoose’s memoir with John Glynn’s Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer, a coming-of-age story of self-discovery from self-doubt to self-knowledge set in a summer house, to glimpse the range of possibilities out there as you write a book about your life.
Tip Four: Continue to use the elements of story
Here at The Novelry, we have courses on how to write a great fiction book. These classes are actually very helpful when you write memoirs, too. While you absolutely have to stick to the facts, you still need to have a character (YOU!) with a flaw (yup, all of us have them!) who has to learn and grow, and change…
At The Novelry, we teach a storytelling patterns we call The Five Fs®. Interestingly, your main character (you!) might find an arc that follows this pattern, whether that’s through many years of your life or just a few key days.
While you absolutely have to stick to the facts, you still need to have a character (YOU!) with a flaw (yup, all of us have them!) who has to learn and grow, and change…
Then, essentially, we need to see these events happen through scenes, with action, dialogue, description and interior monologue. The tools of fiction when used for fact make the story vivid and rich, alive and true. Readers need to feel your experiences, in scenic settings. Making your scenes rich will give us as readers what we seek.
Tip Five: Don’t let others into your process. Not yet.
The biggest concern I hear when people start their first memoir is that they are going to hurt other people in their life by writing it.
When and how you decide to publish it is when you have to ask yourself the big and important question of who will be impacted by the story, and whether that matters to you. That’s when you have to ensure that you’re not being libellous and that you’re being truthful. And you have to make your own private decisions about the effect of your words and story on those you love.
But you do not have to do that when you’re sitting with the blank page.
Right now, your book is for you.
It’s about you.
It’s a stunning and safe place for you to share your story. Please trust yourself to get the words down before you begin to decide what you want to keep private. The writing of a draft of a memoir is a private act. And it’s key that you remind yourself of this at this stage. I love Mary’s Karr’s advice, again, here, as it is a book I refer to in our memoir group:
Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met.
― Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Recently, when I was working with an author to ghost his story, he wasn’t sure how he felt about telling certain details. When we got closer to publication, he elected to pull out lines and even whole scenes. Those were for him. He could keep those words to himself. The rest of the book was for the world. But we couldn’t write the rest of the book until he’d felt free to express himself.
You should prepare yourself to write a book about your own life story
The last thing that I want to share with you today is that while writing a book about your life can be a relief, it can also be upsetting, triggering and challenging. Be gentle with yourself.
Be as kind to yourself as I am to my authors. When they need a break, or are overwhelmed with pain or sadness, we pause. We take the time the story needs to grow. We write. We listen. We write some more.
There are so many other tips and techniques that can make telling your life story so much stronger, but I hope these get you started well.
Writing your memoir is a brave and scary thing to do, and I hope this gives you a little jet fuel to turn your blank page into something extraordinary.
I’ll leave you with a quotation from Glennon Doyle, who writes so vividly about her life:
If you feel something calling you to dance or write or paint or sing, please refuse to worry about whether you’re good enough. Just do it. Be generous. Offer a gift to the world that no one else can offer: yourself.
― Glennon Doyle, Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed