The single most frequent question I’m asked by people who are thinking about writing their life story, or those who recently began, is “Where do I start?” Variations of this are “How do I start?” and “How do I go about it?”
My answer has two parts and is echoed by everyone I know who teaches life story writing:
1. There is no right way to go about this. You think of one specific memory you want people to know about and start writing. Then you write another and another. Eventually they’ll start clustering in your mind and you’ll know what to do next.
2. You can jump start the process by taking time to make a Story Idea List. Essentially you just make a list and then write a story about each of the items on the list, in whatever order you wish. Some people write an orderly river of story; others write like time-traveling grasshoppers.
I cover the complex relationship between planning and writing in considerable detail in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. At the end of that section, the concluding wisdom remains: there is no right way to write. You have to find a way that works for you. You’ll only find that way if you pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard and get those fingers moving.
The other key thing to remember is that almost nobody produces a final copy the first time they write a story. While it is true that anything you write is better than writing nothing, and that your descendants would rather have a hastily scribbled draft written on a discarded lunch bag than not have a story at all, most people realize this work is their legacy, and they want to make it the best they can, within the bounds of time, ability, and motivation.
So don’t be daunted by thoughts like I’m not good at writing ... I don’t know how to say what I want to say ... People will read this and think I was an ignorant dope. Those thoughts come from your Inner Critic. Send him to his room. Start writing and let the words pour out however they do. You may be surprised to read things you had forgotten or never realized you knew.
For the first draft, it’s enough to just get the story down on paper. Later you can add details, refine descriptions and structure, expand the concept, and get as creative as you wish. Maybe branch out into another story. Edit the best you can. Ask a literate friend for help. Read a book — of course I recommend my own at the top of the list, and you can find other fine titles on my website. Take a class. Join a writing group. You could even hire a coach.
Circling back around, it doesn’t matter where you start. It matters that you do.
Write now: make a list of 100 story ideas. Even if you are an experienced writer, you’ll benefit from this exercise to inject a dose of freshness into your writing. Make the list as broad or specific as you wish. When you finish the list, pick one idea and write the story.