Many times you (or someone in your family) have come up with the idea of writing a family history or the story of one particular person in your family. You may have even thought of writing your own life story.
Certain questions naturally come to your mind. Who would care if I did or didn’t write some personal piece? Would anybody be interested in me and my life? Where would I begin.? How would I go about organizing it? What would I include? Would it all just be a piece of fluff and a waste of time? Wouldn’t I feel self-conscious? Wouldn’t I feel like my ego was getting a little out of control?
The answer to each question depends precisely on you. First of all, if you approached the project as a family history and asked others to pitch in and help, you could produce a stimulating project that more than likely would be appreciated for generations. The answer to the other questions would depend on how seriously you approached such a venture. The major answer to all the questions though centers around one word: ORGANIZATION.
You have a lifetime of experiences and you must choose between the interesting events and stories and let go of the things that are not all that interesting. One writer recently wanted to write about his life but he quickly got overwhelmed by the scope of the project. Too, too much information. He realized to go forward in a project like this, you must have a theme just as with any other piece of writing. You must have interesting characters. You must have lots of plot.
If you think of writing your life story in such terms, you will do very well and will not be self-conscious in the least. So what did this writer do? He merely made his book a very detailed compilation of a dozen or so Thanksgivings his family had celebrated. Some had theme, plot and interesting characters. He rejected the Thanksgivings where nothing really happened except a group of folks sitting around eating turkey. He concentrated on the juicy family tidbits that took place in the interesting Thanksgivings. That became his project. His book became a best seller. See, it’s your approach to this project that counts. Remember, the key word is ORGANIZATION.
You have the same bridge to cross if you write a novel. You can’t put everything about the man character in it. You have to be selective in choosing your subject matter. Think of your favorite TV show, be it thirty minutes or an hour. The authors include only what they want you to know. You don’t tell about the main character having a dish of vanilla ice cream unless there’s a story there. Everything has to have a story in a literary creation. Each portion, each vignette, each episode must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have a predicament of some sort that has to be solved. It has to look like it can’t be solved but somehow at the last moment it is.
Now that we know how you must compose your material, let’s see what method and what material you are going to use. We will suppose you are writing your life story.
The Chronological Method. You simply list on large index cards each year you have been alive. Then you list on each card the event you can remember for that year. Once you have done this for every year, you then draw a red line under the events that have a plot potential—beginning, middle and end. Then you write your story.
The Milestone Method. Once again using large index cards, print on each card a highlight of your life. Once you’ve done that, you connect the present with the past. You list the ingredients of that milestone. Let’s say you have a son Donald who just graduated from high school. Then tell the background of your courtship to Helen, your wife, how you met her and later on how you were stopped by a cop on your way to the hospital for your son’s birth. At first the policeman didn’t believe you but once he saw your desperation, he gave you a siren escort and you made it just in time. Hence you named your son after the policeman. Make sure each step in your milestone has a beginning, middle and an ending. If you don’t have an interesting ending for each vignette, then ditch it and try for another more exciting event in your life.
The Episodic Method. Here you treat your life like a TV series. Each chapter of your book is about one particular story. They don’t necessarily have to be in chronological order. You take your large file cards and on each write a title like: The night my uncle escaped from the mental institution; The Time Aunt Charlene borrowed money to get her divorce.; The time my sister went to Mexico to study Spanish and returned with a husband instead of fluency in Spanish. The First and only course I ever flunked. Etc. Once you get enough of these episodes to fill a medium book, stop and you’re ready to write.
The Theme Method. This is the example I earlier gave about the guy who wrote only about the Thanksgivings in his family. A friend of mine who was a retired doctor wrote on file cards the most unusual cases he had treated in his career. This ended up a very interesting book.. I suppose one could do this if one had been a schoolteacher, a pharmacist, or in almost any profession.
Once you have chosen the method you will use, the next thing you must do is shift your memory into high gear. To do this, you will need a bit of help. These come to you via MEMORY GRAB TRIGGERS and QUESTIONS. Below you will find examples of both. You can make your own up if you need more.
MEMORY GRAB TRIGGERS: (use file cards for each topic)
- Places you have lived; different houses, schools you’ve attended, cities.
- Jobs you’ve had.
- Favorite movies.
- Civic and community service you’ve performed.
- Unique and interesting family members.
- The automobiles you’ve owned.
- Restaurants and eating out.
- Music: favorite songs, concerts, singers.
- Medical history.
- Club membership and organizations you’ve belonged to.
- Favorite games.
- Favorite recipes.
- Favorite sports.
- Climate conditions you’ve experienced.
- Educational experiences.
- Travel experiences.
- Spiritual experiences.
- Activities you’ve participated in.
- Childhood experiences.
SELF-QUESTIONS: (write others on file cards)
- What is the best gift you ever received?
- What was the most difficult phone call you ever had to make?
- Describe an unpredictable turn in your life.
- What one possession of your mother or father do you have that when you look at it, you remember what? What feelings come over you?
- What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever visited?
- What is the best gift you ever received?
- What life lesson did you learn the hard way?
- What was the biggest surprise you ever had?
- What was the worst rejection you ever experienced?
- What is the worst experience you ever suffered?
- What was the scariest moment you’ve ever experienced?
- What was the worst storm or climatic condition you’ve ever experienced?
- Who was the most generous person in your family and what was one of their best deeds?
- Who was the stingiest person in your family and what was one of their worst deeds?
- What was the best thing your mother cooked?
- Where did you live when you were a child? Did you like it there?
- Did you ever have a hobby?
- Tell about your favorite pet.
- Were you in military service? What was the best and worst part of it?
- Describe the cars you have owned.
- Did you have any nicknames?
- Describe your favorite teacher. Worst teacher? Best boss? Worst boss?
- What was the worst thing that ever happened to you at work? At school?
- What was the worst joke ever played on you?
The list goes on and on. With proper ORGANIZATION, you’ll easily be on your way to writing the story of your life or that of your family. Have fun reliving all those memories!