Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 4 of 12: Linda Spence and Memory Joggers

Linda Spence
4. Focus on key events by making a list of memory joggers.

Memory joggers speed up your writing process and give you freedom to write. Your goal in listing memory joggers is not perfection in details; it is to remember that events occurred. 

You could outline your entire lifestory using memory joggers, similar to the approach Linda Spence takes in Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History. She divides a life into nine major segments: beginnings and childhood, adolescence, early adult years, marriage, being a parent, middle adult years, being a grandparent, later adult years, and reflections. In each segment she lists questions to help you remember what might have been going on in your life. She has more than 400 questions throughout the book.

Start with these prompts   
Prepare nine pieces of paper or computer files, each with one of Spence’s major life segments at the top, or whatever segments fit your memoir’s purpose. In each segment write a brief line or two about activities you were involved in during that time. Your list could include a handful of activities or dozens. Don’t write complete sentences or paragraphs and don’t try to write a story; just bits of information you will refer to later when writing your stories.

Here are a few prompts to get your juices flowing:
  • Old family photographs
  • School yearbooks
  • Travel photos
  • What you were doing when big news events occurred
  • Letters from family and friends
  • Family Bible
  • Newspaper on the day you were born or other dates you select; search your browser for vendors
  • Family heirlooms: jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, dishes, and so forth
  • Names of family members and friends
  • Persons who most influenced you, for better or worse
  • Those who guided your faith journey
  • Firsts: first date, first learned to drive, first job, first child, and so forth
  • Accomplishments and failures with lessons learned
  • Saddest and happiest events
  • Serious illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Treasured friendships
  • Friendships gone bad
Expand your opportunities to remember by exploring memory joggers with your senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste; revisiting places of your childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood; and spending a specific time in a specific place every day discovering your memory joggers: ten minutes, twenty minutes, forty-five minutes, or whatever time works for you. 

Other resources
“Memory List Question Book,” free download from Soleil Lifestory Network.

“Oral History Interview, Questions and Topics,” from JewishGen.

“A History of Me,” David L. Burton, University of Missouri Extension, Greene County; $10 plus $2 shipping. 

Minute Memoirs, Marnie Swedberg. One hundred twenty-five one-minute memory joggers you may complete in one sitting or one minute at a time. Download for $9.95.

Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography (Adults), Mary Borg. Spiral-bound book includes sections on getting started, staying motivated, and memory joggers. 

Find dozens more resources by searching your browser for memoir writing prompts, memoir writing questions, or memoir memory joggers.

Photo courtesy Ohio University Press/Swallow Press

How have memory joggers helped you? What memory jogger resources have you found useful?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 3 of 12: William Faulkner, “Read, read, read.”


Reading by the sea
3. Read stories you enjoy and follow their approaches.

At the start of each of my lifestory writing classes I ask students why they came. What is bothering you about writing? What has kept you from starting or completing your memoir, biography, or family history? I write their answers on a whiteboard and then turn the list out of view. At the end of class we revisit the list to see whether we covered their concerns.

Concerns include where to begin, what to do about painful memories, will I be sued, fears of what family or friends will say, I’m not a writer, and who will want to read it. A top concern: How do I make my story interesting? 

Do this and you can't miss
The best way to make your lifestory interesting—that is, write so people will want to read it—is to pay attention to how others write. You do that by reading stories you enjoy: nonfiction, short stories, poems, essays, mystery novels, romances, action-adventures, memoirs, biographies, and so on. You can learn from the myriad of mentors, models, and methods that made others successful.

Lee Iacocca is believable in Where Have All the Leaders Gone? because he was president of Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, and headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (his parents were Italian immigrants). Stephen King is believable in On Writing because he wrote more than fifty novels that sold millions of copies. Literary agent Paula Balzer is believable in Writing & Selling Your Memoir because she represented best-selling authors.

Choose your favorites
Pick any author and genre: The late Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, William Zinsser’s nonfiction, Cait London’s romances, James Patterson’s thrillers, or whatever you like. Buy at random a handful of cheap paperbacks at a used book sale. Browse books in your library. Read them. Pay attention to how authors construct a scene, develop conflict, write dialogue, present character traits, show action, and use other good storytelling techniques. When you find yourself drawn into the plot and into the lives of characters, real or fiction, pay attention to how the author took you there. Soon you will say, “I can write like that”.

Reading and learning and applying keep you engaged in your craft. Practice writing a few paragraphs or a chapter of your own story in the style of a favorite author. This was carried to extreme by Yoknapatawpha Press, which for many years sponsored the Faux Faulkner Contest, now suspended. Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi is a fictional place created by William Faulkner (1897-1962) who was a native of Mississippi.

“Read, read, read,” Faulkner said. “Read everything –trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.”

Photo by Ed Rourdon (Creative Commons)

Which authors' writings helped you most and what did you learn?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 2 of 12: Maslow, Wolves, Olympians, and You

Women’s 100-meter hurdles, 2012 Summer Olympics
2. Define your motivation for writing your lifestory.

All creatures feel the need to be connected, whether honeybees or humans, wolves or whales, amoebae or anteaters; whether by village, tribe, pack, household, school, work, neighborhood, city, county, state, country, religion, or politics. Realize it or not, in writing your lifestory—be it biography, memoir, or family history— you have a need to be connected.

Identify your need
American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) created a five-stage hierarchy of needs. Other researchers expanded Maslow’s work into seven and eight stages. Maslow’s stages in order of importance are survival, protection, belonging, self-esteem, and personal growth. A dependency factor is common to all stages—humans need to be connected. If you were to trace any household object, such as a pencil or ballpoint pen, from your house back to a retail store, distribution center, manufacturer, raw materials and so forth, you would discover this dependency in thousands if not millions of lives.

Define your motivation for writing—the reason or reasons you want to be connected—and you will be able to write. Do you want to become famous? Make loads of money? Find personal enjoyment? Honor family legacy? Give back to the community? Help your children and grandchildren understand and appreciate their heritage? Find personal or family healing? Share your journey of faith to inspire others? Set the record straight? Think about all the connections within those questions.

Find your passion 
Marriage and family therapist, author, and memoir writing instructor Linda Joy Myers puts it this way: “The most important ingredient in writing a memoir is motivation–a passionate reason to get the story on the page, a ‘fire in the belly’ feeling that what you have to tell is important and significant.”

The foundational theme for your connections enables you to construct the narrative of your lifestory. Is your theme travel, nostalgia, war, public or celebrity life, humor, charity or service, personal struggles, spiritual faith found or lost, surviving loss of a loved one, social or cultural issues, advice based on experience, confessional, coming of age, rags to riches, dysfunctional family, romance, or trauma? A myriad of themes is available—even revenge, with caution.

Revenge is not a good reason to write your lifestory. It might make an exciting fiction book or movie, but don’t use it as your lifestory to get back at someone; that only perpetuates your hurts and theirs. It is okay to write about revenge as a teaching and learning tool, says Marion Roach Smith in her The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, but don’t use your story as a weapon.

Learn from athletes 
Several television commercials during the 2012 Olympics showed aspiring Olympians becoming motivated by watching winning Olympians and noting their times or scores. The Olympians-to-be wrote the times in sand or on a note attached to a refrigerator door.

Write your motivation on a sticky note and attach it to your computer screen or refrigerator, or write it on the cover of a spiral notebook. It’s okay to have more than one motivation, but more than three muddies your focus and can be overwhelming. Think about what you want to accomplish with your lifestory. Think of the benefits of the results of your published work. Think of how your lifestory not only will make a difference in your life but in the lives of those who read it.

Next week: Read stories you enjoy and follow their approaches.

What is your motivation for writing your lifestory?

Photo courtesy Tom Kelly/Flickr/Creative Commons

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 1 of 12: What Would Moses Do?

Moses mosaic
1. Decide the type of lifestory you will write: memoir, biography, or family history.

Many scholars believe Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, commonly called The Law. The books are mixtures of the basic story types of biography, memoir, and family history.

Two schools of thought exist on deciding the type of lifestory you could write. One, write without categorizing the type until you are finished, freeing yourself from artificial requirements. Two, determine the type before you begin, focusing within a framework that keeps you from wandering in uncontrolled directions.

Both schools rely on good storytelling. A good story has a beginning, middle, and ending; characters readers relate to whether they love them or hate them; and conflicts which may or may not be resolved. I recommend to students in my classes and to clients they decide the type of lifestory before they begin. By limiting their scope, they can focus on their stories rather than fantasize about getting an agent, a big publishing advance, having a best-selling book, and becoming famous.

Meaning of focus
Many life stories are written only for family and friends, are less than 100 pages, and may have only a couple of dozen copies printed and bound at a local quick-print shop. That is what a husband and wife did who attended my class. They wrote on calendar pages things their two sons said and did from babies to teenagers, transferred their notes to a computer and added photos, and printed a few copies at a quick-print shop. The result was a treasure for them, their children, and their grandchildren.

Another married couple I know felt strongly the need to capture stories of their influential lay pastor who also was a farmer. They recorded interviews with the pastor and his wife over a period of two years and transcribed the interviews for family members. The spiritual experiences and relationship stories were wonderful blessings of memories, even though the manuscript was not widely distributed.

Examples of biography, memoir, family history
The basic types of lifestory writing are distinguished by time periods. Biography is from birth to today. It is a biography if you write about someone else and an autobiography if you write about yourself. Celebrities and politicians often are subjects of biographies and autobiographies. Examples: Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Vanessa Williams.

Memoir covers a short time period or series of related events such as childhood, teenage years, military service, trauma, spiritual journey, and so forth. Your stories tell key experiences that influenced you and how you changed. Examples: Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, Sue Williams Silverman.

Family history uses genealogy, photos, and stories to tell about your ancestors. You may start several centuries ago and stop at any date you choose. Examples: Sloan and Related Families, about my wife’s family from 1756 to today; and husband and wife Dawn and Morris Thurston, each of whom wrote family histories.

Not all life stories fit neatly into the three types. Examples: Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, and books of the Bible. Esther is as much about author Julie Wheelwright’s journey to learn about an ancestor as it is about the ancestor, a mother superior who saved her convent in the 1759 English siege of Quebec City, Canada. Books of the Bible are mixtures of lifestory types. The variety of biblical authors did not write to showcase types, but to show God’s compassion to humans with stories richly told through laws, history, wisdom, prophecies, hymns, poetry, and letters.  

Next week: Define your motivations for writing your lifestory.

Which lifestory type best fits you and why?

Photo: Moses mosaic displayed in the Mosaic Museum of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. Courtesy TheWB (Wikimedia Commons).