Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 5 of 12: Don't Try to be a Writer

Our book cover
5. Write in your natural voice, as though you were telling a story to a friend.

Students in my lifestory writing classes frequently say, “I’m not a writer.”

Stay with me, I’m going to get negative before I get positive.

I remember a scene in a movie from many years ago—can’t remember the name of the movie—in which an Army drill instructor faced a group of new recruits for the first time. “I tell you now, you will never make it,” the instructor barked.

Some established writers, agents, editors, and publishers tell aspiring writers the same thing; that writing what people want to read is hard, scary, and painful, therefore newbies won’t make it.

Consider these

  • Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winner for To Kill a Mockingbird, on why she never published another book (she wrote two others): “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money.” 
  • Michael Perry, author of three bestselling memoirs: “I just wrote and wrote and wrote for years, and then one day (after nearly a decade of writing every day and submitting work every month) the marbles aligned, not that the metaphor is perfect. I’m still trying to keep those marbles in line, and the table is forever tipping.” 
  • Paul Gallico (1897-1976), novelist and sportswriter: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” 
  • Susannah Breslin, short-story writer: “This is your roulette wheel, and when it lands on every number but the one you picked, and you realize that after years of work, you haven’t made more than a pittance at what you thought would be your new career, you will call it a day.”
How do you counter such negativity? Your image of what a writer should be may be skewed to unreal expectations. In the finality of things you need to be you. You need to write your lifestory the way you remember events and how you were influenced without being restrained by arbitrary standards of so-called experts.

Don't try to be a writer
This doesn’t mean you abandon effective storytelling techniques, good grammar, and proper punctuation. Learn your craft and then you can break the rules. Your finished product should be you; not Harper Lee, Michael Perry, Paul Gallico, or Susannah Breslin. On the other hand, it salves me to know Gallico told New York Magazine: “I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories.”

How do you be you? Rather than staring at a blank page or empty computer screen struggling to write like a writer, try telling your story to a digital voice recorder. You can buy them for thirty dollars to three hundred dollars. My thirty-dollar recorder does everything I need.

Tell your story into the recorder just as you would tell it to a friend. For my book with Dorsey Levell, Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance: My 31 Years with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, we did a series of audio recorded interviews which we then transcribed and edited. Dorsey is a great storyteller; he readily admits he is a much better storyteller than a writer. Some who know him told us that reading our book was like having a cup of coffee with him and listening to his stories. Exactly the result we were going for.

Book cover designed by Eric Baker of Blue Sky Design.

Tell us how you used a digital voice recorder for stories of family, friends, or clients.


  1. I was thrilled to see Michael Perry mentioned in your latest blog posting. I attended your class in the library over a year ago, and mentioned him in your class as a great example of someone who writes memoirs based on his own “ordinary” life. At that time, you hadn’t heard of him. The timing of this is uncanny... I just took my family on weekend bike ride on the Katy trail, which I planned around Perry’s book-signing event at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. Sunday evening, I met him, and now have a signed copy of his latest (4th) bestselling memoir, “Visiting Tom”, which is his first New York Times best seller, at #21 this week in the Hardcover Non-fiction category.

    Today’s the day I’ve been psyching myself up for to get back to serious, daily writing. Still, I’m struggling with just doing it, so I read a few more bloggers posts including yours, for inspiration and motivation. Now I’m ready!

  2. Glad to know you are getting back to daily writing, Greg. You could write at the same time every day for 15 minutes or for a certain number of words or pages. Here is wishing you the best of success.