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).