Whether you are writing your memoir, another person's life story, a fictional character's story, or even a story of your ancestors for a family genealogy, you need to research and digest the whole life story -- but use only the most compelling and important aspects of the life story to focus on. The rest becomes your cushion of understanding, where you can reach for a telling anecdote or details to help you create a rich story that will, hopefully, add to our understanding about our shared human experience.
My Life Story Chart helps you to make sense of what to include, and what to highlight in your finished book or short story. It helps to organize your background research, ask the right questions, and see patterns that run across a person's entire life and legacy.
Filling in the chart helps to find the points of drama that will make someone’s Life Story interesting enough to write a book about. Look for the events in their life that illustrate if a person:
Was this person a survivor or forever changed by an unusual historic or life event that destroys their norms:
Is this a person a helper who positively affects their community or family in small or big ways, makes their world a better place?
Is this a person who chooses to leave the norm and find an alternative lifestyle?
(Climbing Mt. Everest, Olympic contenders, solo sailors, Spelling Bee Champion,
world tour, a safari, a trip down the Amazon River, RVing across America)
The average person’s life story falls into the basic categories in the chart below, no matter when, where, or what culture they lived in:
Sandra Cisneros' first novel was The House on Mango Street. It chronicled her family's impoverished life in Chicago, Illinois, and an American culture that was a far cry from her parents' Mexican origins.
The beloved series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder starts with Little House in the Big Woods, and takes us through a series of houses and towns as the Wilder family followed the pioneer routes to the new territories and states of the American mid-west.
In Frances Mayes' bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun, a California woman's vacation in Tuscany inspired her to buy a house in Italy, renovate it, and discover an entire new life in Italy.
For many writers, writing about the houses they grew up in is a compelling way to organize their life stories into a memoir, a fiction series, or a lifetime of writing. The story of someone who was born, lived and died in the same house their whole lives is going to be full of different insights, experiences, and family and community relationships than the story of someone who moved to a dozen different American towns and cities in their lives.
At first glance, however, many writers don't see the homes they lived in as treasures to be mined for memoirs or fiction. That's especially true if they think of them as merely "ordinary," as one writer in my workshop put it, A New York City native, she had moved three times in her childhood, each time to a different house in the same city borough.
But a funny thing happened when we listed the house numbers and street names on a white board. As she began to describe the circumstances around each move, a hidden and moving story emerged. This was not the American Dream of "moving up in the world." No, this was the story of a family losing social and economic status with every move due to death, divorce, job loss, and illness. Each move fractured her immediate family further, revealing a significant, emotional loss of important adults in her life. These were losses, she realized at that moment, that her family had never been able to recover from. Each move sent some members further into a downward spiral, economically and emotionally. Sent them further from the city's middle class neighborhoods where they had started. Further into social exile from friends and neighbors that had formed the core of her early, more secure childhood. By examining the succession of moves, she came to see that her family's story paralleled the story of the disintegration of America's working class from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the manufacturing and blue collar jobs that created a strong middle class began to die off.
And so, as we examined the homes of this woman's otherwise "ordinary" life story, we found a compelling narrative, both unique in the details of her particular life story, and yet resonating with the shared history of a changing American society of a particular time and place.
Memoirs and novels are usually crafted to focus on one major slice of a person's entire life story.
Think of some of the most famous memoirs. American Sniper was primarily about Chris Kyle's decision to become a SEAL and how that decision affected the rest of his life. Elements of his life before he entered the military were a smaller part of the story.
Pat Conroy, a prolific writer of novels and memoir, wrote his first memoir The Boo in 1970 about his education at a military school, and the college professor who affected him most. His second memoir, The Water is Wide, focused on his own short career teaching poor black students in South Carolina. He would go on to explore different periods in his life in many of his other books, including fictional novels (The Great Santini),
Adriana Trigiani's novels were inspired by elements of her own life story (Big Stone Gap) and the life stories of her grandparents, such as in The Shoemaker's Wife.
One way to figure out what story you want to tell in your own memoir or novel is to examine your own life story to find the places that resonate or excite you the most.
Take five pieces of blank paper. At the top of each write one of the following labels, each in a different color ink or colored pencil:
On each page, using the corresponding color, free associate by writing down whatever comes to mind. Names, dates, places, and fragments of memories associated with that time in your life. Or in the case of Family History, things associated with what you've heard or what you're curious about. In the case of Legacy, what you would like to leave behind, or what you have already done to help others or start a legacy.
If you have old photos, or from your recent stash of photos, find one or two photos that go with each topic. Print out or make copies of the photos and paste them on the page.
Finally, choose one of the pages that excite you the most. Then sit at the computer or write in a notebook for ten minutes about what excites you the most. There is your starting point.
You can do the same ten minute exercise with each page. Or you can just start your memoir or novel in the one area that excites you the most.
Let me know by email.