by Krista Sarraf
“Stories—narratives—provide a way of understanding our place in the scheme of things by structuring our understanding of events. They root us in an on-going stream of history and thereby provide us with a sense of belonging and helping establish our identities.” -Arthur Dobrin, Professor Emeritus of Management, Entrepreneurship, and General Business at Hofstra University
So, you want to write your life story. Writing your life story can be extremely gratifying – even therapeutic. There’s something essentially human about passing our wisdom to future generations.
In an August 2013 article in Psychology Today, Professor Arthur Dobrin boldly argues that storytelling is “necessary for human survival.” He goes on to claim that, in modernity, we need stories more than ever. To summarize, in the good ol’ days, religion and government told us our place in the world. While that still holds somewhat true today, modern thought has complicated many of these narratives. As a result, you may feel a strong desire to tell stories as a way to understand where you fit in the big picture – to craft your identity. It makes sense: in a day and age where identities constantly shift, we desire to solidify our place in it all.
Whether you tell stories around the dinner table about the glory days of high school or college, you talk about times of war or job loss, or you speak of former romances, you’re sharing your life as you speak.
But what if you want to write it down?What if you want to have a physical, real life record of the things that happened to you and who you are? Though memoir writing can be healing, it can also be daunting if you don’t know where to start.
I recently worked with a hospice to compile a handbook for folks wishing to do memoir writing or “life review” as some call it. Writing this handbook got me thinking: how does someone who has lived a full life choose which stories to transcribe? Especially within the context of hospice, the task of weeding through one’s life to find the fruitful stories seems horribly overwhelming.
But it shouldn’t be. After all, storytelling is about as integral to the human experience as breathing. Think of the great religious texts: we’ve been telling profound, moving stories since the dawn of time. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” begins John 1:1. I’m not up on my Theology, but as a writer, this line speaks to me that words are powerful, life changing forces. Speak and ideas take shape. Write, and your life finds form.
As you write your memoir, you can reach into the wells of the past, journal about painful topics, and find healing. Or, you can find stories that represent your place within your families and communities’ heritages. You can speak of your role as class president, how your family came to the area, or where you bought your first house. No matter your age or purpose, writing about your life is a rich and rewarding experience.
Are you ready to explore your past and find meaning in words? Here are seven easy ways to write your life story:
- Pick an audience. Are you writing for yourself, for your friends and family, or for future generations? Perhaps you’re writing for all three. Before you start, I encourage you to ask yourself why you’re writing. If it’s to heal past hurts, you may not want to show those stories to anyone. If you want to give a sense of your timeline, maybe you’ll show your stories to future generations. Either way, I recommend that you decide on an audience(s) early on to narrow your focus.
- Keep it simple. You don’t have to write about everything that’s ever happened to you. To get started, jot down the first five memories that come to mind. From that list, select the three most emotional ones (whether they make you laugh or cry). Those three stories are your starting point.
- Make it fun. After all, why spend time writing your life story if you don’t have fun? Before a life story session, find your favorite music, change into your slippers, and sink into the best chair in the house. Or, head to a coffee shop to fill your senses. Set the tone to make writing fun.
- Literally tell your stories. I recommend that you grab your smartphone and record yourself telling your stories (if you don’t have a smartphone, find a friend who does). Under the camera application, you can record video. These videos can be your final product; or, you can transcribe the stories and edit from there.
- Hit up the library. Libraries offer access to databases where you can research your family history. Stop by your local library, and explain that you’d like to learn more about the area in which your stories are set, the people in your stories, etc. Librarians are wonderful people who love to help.
- Limit yourself. Without restrictions, you’ll get lost in the writing process. There’s a better way: commit to writing once a week for eight weeks. After two months, you should have four to eight life stories. That’s a great start. Revise these stories before you write the next set. Limit yourself to stay on track with your goals.
- Share your work. It’s a good idea to find someone to read your stories, especially if you’d like to publish them someday. A second set of eyes can catch errors and typos. Westmoreland County has several writer critique groups who can give you solid feedback. If you’re a student, Write Local can match you to a mentor who will help you to develop your work. Adult writers can also reach out to Write Local to learn more about writing events and groups in the area.
Whether you’ve lived fifteen years or fifty, remember that your memoir is uniquely yours. I commend you for sharing your story with the world. After all, you’re part of the tapestry that makes this place so interesting.
After working and studying in Virginia for 10 years, Krista Speicher Sarraf, originally from Donegal, PA, now lives in Latrobe where she teaches composition at Seton Hill University. Krista is a founder of Write Local, a literacy initiative that inspires young writers to think creatively and innovate locally. Additionally, Sarraf writes poems and stories and is currently working on her first novel.
Write Local’s featured event in July is Dr. Seuss Camp with Latrobe Art Center. Visit writelocal.org/events to enroll.