Whether you’re a celebrity, an author, or an average person who has experienced a great deal of life, writing a book about your life is a worthwhile endeavor that will require you to make some decisions about what material to include and what to leave out. But if you’re willing to do the work, there’s no question that crafting a life story that’s worth reading is one of the most rewarding writing projects you can undertake.
Research the genre
When you first started thinking about writing a book about your life, you might have had some vague notion of writing it for personal catharsis on a couch while watching TV in sweatpants, but with some research you should be able to determine what the agenda for your book will be. Are you wanting to document your life’s experiences for your family? Perhaps you want to tell your life story as a tribute, or as a warning, or as a history lesson. No matter your reason, there’s an appropriate book genre that will help you organize your ideas and give your project weight and resonance.
If you’re not worried about being a bestseller, but still want a book that will showcase your life in a way that’s meaningful to others, nonfiction books such as biographies and autobiographies, or, if you’re planning to make some money from your life story, memoirs, will set you up to do it effectively with everything from candid snapshots of your life to full-scale analysis of its complexities.
Decide what kind of book you’re writing
When you begin writing your book, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re writing. Will this be a memoir, the story of your life but told from a distance? Will it be a true-life novel, a work of fiction that follows a narrative arc? Will you present a snapshot of one phase of your life? Or will it be a biographical encyclopedia, detailing the major events and people in your life? If you’re an author, will your book make an argument based on your life history, or is it more about lessons learned?
Or are you going to explore another avenue entirely, such as writing in the form of a documentary? You may already have a type in mind, but confirming your actual objective before you start will help you keep your writing focused — you can always capriciously change course later. Pure biographies and autobiographies run the risk of stagnating if the author is too fixated on sticking to the facts, leaving it to the reader to artificially manufacture pace or drama. If you’re using a nonlinear narrative structure in your book, it can relieve the pressure of getting the facts straight — but the off-kilter structure itself has to be compelling, so that the reader will look past the device.
Consider non-fiction as fiction
Think of the best example of a book about someone’s life that you’ve ever read. Perhaps it felt so real and true, you felt like you were really sitting there with the author or like you were right back in their life with them — that’s exactly the feeling you want to create when writing your book. To do that, you need to look at those events — even the hard times — from a different perspective. By writing non-fiction about your life you’re also going to have to work to take their story outside of yourself and express what something has taught you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a struggle, you conquering an illness, or moving across the country to find a new job. Writing a book about your life is a chance to look at your own story in this way, and see how your growth can inspire other people.
If you’re looking for ideas of what to write about, think about the events that you’re most proud of — whether it has to do with your family or your education, and the times you learned the most about who you are and where you came from. When you’re far enough away from something that you can see the lessons more easily, you can give yourself an extra perspective that’s essential to writing a book about your life. By looking at your life from this outside perspective, you can view yourself as a writer without feeling self-conscious or introspective, and that’s exactly the kind of book about your life you should be trying to write.
Come up with an angle
So, what makes your life story worth reading? Just because your life is interesting doesn’t mean it’s worth making public — there have to be more than simply one or two fascinating anecdotes or experiences, otherwise your book will read like a memoir. The truth is, a lot of books that are memoirs are only read by the author’s family and closest friends. The dilemma is that your life story alone — that is, on its own — isn’t usually enough, and adding fictional elements is often really awkward. Instead, you need some sort of angle that turns your personal experiences into the raw material for a shapely story. Find a theme, and a moral to your experiences, and you might discover something valuable.
For example, if your life has been one long lesson in resilience — through battle, brain injury, mental illness, poverty, and so on — then your story might function better as a how-to guide, or as a call-to-action. The challenge will be transforming your narrative into these formats. Point out specific themes and lessons within your story, and make sure you’re able to explain your take-away from your experiences. If these explanations come clearly to you, other people will understand them just as well. Pull out the most fundamental aspects of your life story over the course of several drafts. Do you have a way of framing your experiences that makes sense? Can you be succinct and inviting with prose? If the story you’re trying to tell is still an incoherent mess, you might want to consider a different topic.
Identify the conflict in your life story
Too often people who want to write a book about their life stop before they begin, worrying that it’s narcissistic or self-indulgent. But a book about your life doesn’t need to be all about you. What conflict are you facing or have you faced in your life? Maybe your life has been fairly uneventful, or you don’t consider what you’ve been through “important.” If this is the case, then a book about your life doesn’t need to be about the big dramatic events, but about something internal — like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, for example.
Maybe you’ve done something that you have to come to terms with in your life. What lessons have you learned, or conclusions does your life story cause you to draw? What’s your philosophy on life going forward? Is there a topic that your life story can act as an extended case-study for? What have you processed about yourself, about your life when you think back on it — and how can you share it with others? By keeping the focus on your story, you aren’t exploiting yourself, but giving yourself the opportunity to help others, which really is the greatest gift that writing books can give.
Know your voice
You don’t need to do anything flashy to prove that your life is worth writing a memoir about, but “just a story” memoirs are rare. The trick for memoir writers is to establish themselves as characters in their own story, so your book feels less like a “just a story” and more like an authentic narrative. This can be difficult, but fortunately, self-deprecating humor, cynicism, and other imperfections are helpful tools. Also, writing nonfiction is all about a mission to truth, so you can also try and become a better writer by emulating your favorite authors.
And not everyone knows this, but another way to tell a good memoir is to talk about yourself! Personal essays are popular, and while it isn’t exactly the same genre as autobiography, personal essays often read like autobios hot off the presses. One way to think of your life’s story is to remember all the moments that you were most proud of and tell your story from that angle. Maybe it’s when you sealed the deal on a lucrative, high-profile contract, or individually thanked everyone who contributed to your award-winning crowdfunding project. Think small, unconventional moments, too — the times when you’ve helped someone out of a tight spot, or retained composure in the face of unforeseen technical difficulties. The best nonfiction writers often tell stories in a humorous, self-deprecating voice, and your memoir is no different. Replace “I” with “I, narrating this story” or “this idiot” when it feels appropriate. It’s when your story and you collide that you can write an instantly individualized nonfiction memoir — the mark of a true author.
Tell the best story, not the true one
If you want to write a book about your life, instead of simply outlining the events that happened to you or then mindlessly rehashing your memories, actively search for the best moments. Literally, scope out your whole life and pick out which events, relationships, and personal struggles you think would be best for a compelling story. This means that you need to forget about what actually happened, and decide instead what would engross readers the most. This is particularly important if yours is a nonfiction book — after all, your life is interesting only because it’s entertaining or weird, or if it has a natural structure and is already headed in interesting directions. If you really want to write a compelling nonfiction book that people will love, you need to look for the high moments. These will yield both the best writing and the best story.
However, you’re not just looking for the most engrossing moments, but also the most engaging protagonists. You can figure this out by imagining what you would want to see yourself as while reading a book. Would you prefer to be the protagonist of the story you’re writing, or could you see yourself as a friend, mentor, or teacher to the protagonist? Answering these questions will help you define the type of people you want to be in your book. If you want to make sure there are no paradoxes here, look at all the new characters with the eyes of an editor and ask yourself if this is who you would like to be in the same place in the book. If the answer is “No”, then it’s not necessary to your story.
Start simple and go deeper
Far too often, beginners try to create extensive and complex timelines of all the important things that happened in their lives. When this happens, storytelling often suffers, because the author gets trapped into filling in every potential tale, and ends up either ignoring the best moments, or muddling through the lesser ones. Instead, pick one moment when things drastically changed for you and your work. It could be a change in kinship structures, changing social identity, a religious experience, a major conflict, or a new period of prosperity. What the moment is doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you have a single event that centers your book. It’s also important to keep writing your book to a reasonable length. Most memoirs are like novels, ranging between 80,000 and 100,000 words, but some people may not be interested in a full length book. As a result, you may wish to consider writing a long essay, rather than a full length book. Non-fiction essays are often around 10-20,000 words and can be an effective way to publish your story. As with everything else, there is no right or wrong length, but it’s worthwhile to think about your target audiences, and what will match their demands.
The central moment should also be your theme, but make sure to dig into it a bit before you decide on too much. Consider how you felt when it happened, how you responded and the harm done as a result of those actions, as well as any victories gained. If nothing particularly important happened, your book isn’t going to see any sales, so consider if those early years are merely immature mistakes, or if there is something rich there to explore. For biographies and memoirs, cover your life subjectively, or at least make sure you stick to your interpretation of events — and preferably, make sure you’re not lying about anything important to bolster your reputation or credibility.
Understand your own biases
The key to writing a book about your life is to see it from an objective point of view. That means you’ll have to understand your own biases before you’re able to look at them. One way to do this is to try writing your book from another person’s perspective, or even from an animal’s point of view. Get to know your subject matter, and be as honest as you can. It might be tempting to skip over major parts of your life, but the things you choose to ignore can be just as important as the things you pick out for your book.
Once you’ve gathered all your materials — experiences, feelings, and details — go back through them and organize them. Start by putting all your memories in chronological order. Also, write down each important event as it happens, even if you think it’s boring. Only in hindsight will you be able to see which details to include or which ones will need to be expanded. Which feelings and moments seem to recur, and which tie everything together? Once you have these more cinematic building-blocks, you can confidently expand your story into a book.
Outline your book
We can all agree that writing is more comfortably explored than pondered. By topic, you should already be well aware of what you want to say, but the next step is to pull it all together by organizing your book into an outline. Keeping in mind the story of a book is also a story about its writing, an outline can take many forms. However, the most common are premise, storyboard, and picture book. It can be tempting to play with these various plot options instead of exploring them all to start with, but each one successfully secures the direction your book will go in. Picture books, as the name indicates, focus more on visual flow and focus less on words and text. This means you should think about the images and sentences for each chapter. For a novel, decide where it starts, where it ends, and what sort of characters will guide the reader through. To help with this, try plotting to your images and symbolism, reference characters and significant events, and chronologically set a timeline. With your plot in mind, you can call on how to write a book about your life thoughts, and how to write a book about your life feelings, in any order you please.
Beyond the structure your book will take, your outline needs to contain the role of the reader and why they should care about reading the story. The best way to make your outline stick is to simply place yourself in your reader’s shoes. Begin by asking yourself who your book could possibly be for. Who could want to live inside your story, to be immersed in your plot, or to travel through your thinking? Once you’ve figured that out, determine how they’re going to interact with the book as you write it, whether it’s by laying out the development of the plot, knowing it before reading, or by keeping a window open for interactivity. The most important thing about the outline is how you’re going to tell your story — because the outline is one way the reader interacts with your book.
Let the reader walk with you along the path
One of the most important things to remember when writing a memoir is the journey is not defined by where you end up — it’s defined by where you’ve been and the roads you’ve traveled to get there. To take full advantage of this, your memoir writing needs to find the kind of emotional resonance that pulls your reader in — so don’t hold back. Sometimes this means reaching back into childhood, and finding the rich details of family and community that meant the most to you. Sometimes it means facing tragedy to find the meaning in the grief. And sometimes it means ceding control of the narrative to your reader in an unexpected way, and experiencing the world freely through their eyes.
When you’re writing a memoir, don’t try to be too formulaic — instead, allow your prose to be a combination of the well-structured and the freewheeling. It’s not uncommon for writers to start off with a loose and rambling outline that barely progresses from one chapter to the next. It can feel risky to abandon your outline and just read your writing over to put it down on paper, but that kind of free-flowing narrative, with its indirect routes and nonsequiturs, allows space for the emotions of your story to truly take place. If you follow your gut and read your writing as you go along, the structure will develop organically as you create a memoir that is truly your story.
Build your tribe
Most memoirists become authors because they want to share something, and just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean that you need the whole world to read it. In fact, it may be better if you start with a smaller audience. If people can’t read your words immediately when they’re finished, are you looking to share a digital version through blogging, newsletters and writing groups, or are you looking to pitch a print run? You should also think about your content. If this book is going to be a bestseller, you may want to craft it differently than you would if all you really wanted was to share it with friends and family.
If you only want to write a book for a certain group of people, you have to cultivate that community. Host reading groups, or perform readings. If you feel like there aren’t enough people for a successful readership, try and reach out to similar online communities for like-minded folk. Take social networking by storm and always have book giveaways ready to go. Whatever you choose to do, you’d better be ready to be your own hype-person.
Remember that it’s not enough to just tell the story of what you did, you need to share what you learned. If your goal is to help others who are going through the same thing you went through, give them tips to help them through their struggle. If you’ve accomplished something amazing, that’s great too! What’s most important is that your words reflect your personality, as well as the principles you believe in. Ultimately, it may be tough to open up, but when you have confidence in your ideas and your choices, your book will be infinitely stronger for it. Now get out there and write!
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