Last week I read a letter written for the purpose of defending and rallying support for an important cause. The letter is unlikely to achieve that purpose and could even sabotage the effort. Among its flaws, it failed to clearly state the purpose, and supporting evidence for a poorly organized list of complaints was lacking. The effect was somewhat like scattering dots on a piece of paper without adding numbers so they can be connected to reveal a recognizable shape.
I had a sense of déjà vu when I read this letter. It reminds me of stories in my grandmother's autobiography. Her collection of a hundred or so memories consists mainly of disorganized recollections that lack sufficient detail and background information to render them meaningful to anyone who didn't know her well.
My grandmother wrote her autobiography in 1980, not long before she died. It was the first time I'd heard of an "ordinary person" writing an autobiography. I was impressed by the fact that she did it, and treasured it then and now. I've scanned it to save for posterity. Even back then I realized it was missing major chunks of information, and I have added missing pieces I know about - entering my thoughts in italics and initialing them so there will be no confusion about who wrote what.
Recorded memory fragments are not so different from shards of pottery in an archeological dig. The pottery must be cleaned and pieced together insofar as possible to recreate something meaningful, and even a reconstructed pot will shed only so much light on life in that early era. An intact kitchen, such as those found in Pompeii is far more useful.
Whether you are writing a letter of persuasion or a lifestory, you want to achieve the equivalent of that intact kitchen. You'll be more likely to accomplish that aim if you take a few minutes to write a sentence or two explaining the main purpose of your story. Then list the key points required to fully convey the message. You could also jot notes about facts needed to flesh out your main points.
You don't have to make the outline first. If you feel a story ready to gush forth, let it rip. When you finish, make your list to ensure you didn't leave out anything important. You may want to add more content to your story, or take out some distracting trivia. You may want to rearrange parts of it. You may even want to have a few other people, like your writing group, read it to see if it makes sense when read cold.
Never ever skip this step of asking for outside review when you are writing an important letter to generate support. It's an optional step for lifestories. Even though my grandmother's autobiography is scattered and confusing, she did write it, for me, my cousins and our families. I appreciate and honor her effort. In writing persuasive letters, clarity, order and thoroughness are critical. Those attributes are icing on the cake for lifestory writing. Stories that come from your heart, as a gift to the future, are the cake itself.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal