How Do I Start Writing My Lifestory?


“I want to tell my grandchildren about my life, but when I sit down to write, my hand freezes and no words come  out. I don’t know where to start or how to do it. What can I do?”

“Do you use email?”


“Try this: Open a new email message and write a long email to your grandchildren. Start at the beginning. Tell them when and where you were born and who your parents were. Then start telling them about things you remember from early in your life. Tell them what things looked like and what you thought and felt about them, why they mattered. Write about friends you had and important people in your life. Just keep writing, talking from your heart in email, just like they were sitting there with you. You can send the email, or copy it and paste it into Word. Or both. Can you do that?”

“Yes, I think I can do that. That sounds easier than writing stories!”

When people hear that I teach and write about life story writing, confusion often tumbles out. Many people have tried this email approach with good results. A few write by hand, sometimes on stationery – remember that lovely old letter paper? That works too.

Something about writing letters seems less intimidating than writing a story. You can keep using paper to write more stories, or switch to Word.

I included dozens more tips for getting started in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, like  setting up a folder in My Documents (or wherever you keep your Word documents) named “Life Story” or something similar. Save drafts of your stories in that folder so you can find them later.

For now, don’t think about editing. Keep writing and adding to the pile. This is one time that quantity trumps quality. Rest assured that you are always going to start with rough drafts. Even professionals with decades of writing experience write messy first drafts, so you are in good company.

The reason for quantity is to capture as much as you can while you are able. My mother began writing her life story around the time she turned 70. Her health soon declined ending her writing. After she died, I found piles of notes and drafts. I had to piece them together, but we have a complete record that stops just when she met my father. We can fill in the rest, but the early stuff was totally new. If she’d stopped to polish early drafts to a shine, those fascinating stories would be lost.

If you need help remembering or knowing what to write about, Google “lifestory writing prompts.” You’ll find a million.

Now, get those fingers moving!

Write Now: whether you are just starting or you’ve been writing your lifestory or memoir for years, open a blank email window and write about your birth and first year. Everything you write will be from records like your birth certificate and from hearsay. That’s okay. Write it the way you heard it, and include any thoughts it brings to mind. You may be surprised what comes out in this informal setting.


suzicate said...

What a treasure your mother left you all! There's so much I wish my ancestors had left behind and quite a few treasures they did. One such delight was a biography of my great great uncle that was handwritten and later typewritten by his son and handed out to relatives. I'd been given that copy some twenty years or more ago and never read it until I stumbled upon it a few years ago. (So glad I'd only packed it away and not thrown it out!) Anyway, it was the story of how he and his brother started working at ages 12 and 13 to support the family when their father left them and how he later got a job with the railroad and worked his way up to a prominent position, and all about the area how they traveled by foot over the mountain trails etc. It was truly fascinating. Though I really don't know much about that part of the family, it is still a family treasure to me.

Sharon said...

Cool story, Suzi. Did you transcribe those letters to share with family?

Cate Russell-Cole said...

Sharon, this is a great post. Thank you, I will be passing it on.

P.S. I will be in touch about the senses document. I am freshly out of bed after a 3 day migraine and still not feeling so good... but you will hear from me shortly.

Best wishes.

Sharon said...

Thank you Cate. You are the queen of sharing. How you feel better soon!

sherpeace said...

That is what Isabel Allende did for at least 2 of her memoirs. They are very long letters to her daughter who died of a terrible disease at a very young age.

Sharon said...

I did not realize she used that structure for Paula. I read The Sum of Our Days, but not Paula. I know she writes (or maybe wrote) to her mother every day, so not surprising she'd do a book that way. She is one wild and crazy, tiny little woman who writes BIG!

suzicate said...

His son had transcribed it and gave it to the mom found it among her stuff and gave each of her children a copy over twenty years ago. Apparently I was the only one in my immediate family who even read it or kept it...