Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Four Reasons NOT to Write Down Your Life Story

Most of my father’s life story is lost forever.  I always meant to write it down, and he always said he would do it—but when we finally made time to do it together, he died not long after we started.  I would give a king’s ransom to know more details about his life before we kids came along.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not writing down your life story…

1.     “I don’t know what to write about.”

A good list of questions solves that problem.  Those kind of lists are all over the internet and in books at the bookstore.  I have one which I give to clients and family members.  If a person starts with a good list, then it’s as simple as this:  (a) write down your thoughts about each question that interests you; (b) skip the ones that don’t; (c) throw in anything else that you think of along the way; and (d) the job is done!

2.     “I’m not a very good writer/speller.”

That’s like saying, “I’m not a very good mechanic, so I’m not going to drive a car.”  The fact is, we get help with the things we’re not good at.  One of my favorite things is editing.  That means taking someone else’s rough thoughts and “cleaning them up” and “making them pretty.”  Everyone knows someone (or can hire someone) who is good at that.   But if you don’t, write down your story anyway!  A rough diamond is much better than no diamond.

3.     “I never did anything interesting, so it would be boring.”

 My mother’s life consisted of growing up on a farm, getting married, and being a housewife for the rest of her life.  My husband’s mother’s life was the same.  But when people who love them read the life stories that I helped them write, those stories are more precious than gold.  Details that may seem boring to the writer, are fascinating to us who didn’t live in those times.  And so often, the better we understand our parents and grandparents, the more we love them.  

4.     “I'm not a very good typist.”

In the computer era, good typists are a dime a dozen.  Every child can type these days.  If you can write, someone else can type!  So write down your story, or dictate it to someone, or type it if you can—but don’t let it be forever lost.

So please, grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, write out your memories for us!  It doesn’t have to be perfect or professional—just do the best you can.  We want to know what has made you the person you are.  We want to see the world as you saw it, before we were born.  We want to walk a mile in your shoes.  We don’t want these stories to die with you.  Share your lives with us!  We want you to.


  1. Well said, Susan. You've done a great favor for many today. I wish every person who's ever resisted writing - or telling - their life story could read this. As an alternative, those who do "fear the pen" might consider recording an oral history themselves or with a family member. I can think of many loved ones whose voices I would long to hear again.

  2. Sometimes, writing a "Life Story" represents an imposing task. I think that's when some people back away and hide under that excuse of a "boring life." Rather than challenging someone to write the narrative on what he or she claims is a pedestrian life, it helps to focus on episodes--vignettes of difficulty, challenges, surprise, humor, even disgust. Something which evokes an emotion when the person recalls that moment or season of life. Those are the responses that inspire people to start writing--and will draw others into the reading of it, too.

  3. Thank you, Linda, for the kind words. It's something I feel strongly about.

    Yes, Jacqui, it can be imposing -- that's why I made point #1 -- a good set of questions really helps. Most of those I have helped with their memoirs felt they had no special vignettes (and would have felt totally inadequate to put them into words if they had) -- but even the very 'pedestrian' elements of their lives are special, not pedestrian, for those of us who read them.

  4. "the better we understand our parents and grandparents, the more we love them."

    You hit the nail on the head with that statement. I spent much of my little girlhood scared of my paternal grandmother (Granny). She had such a gruff exterior. I remember once as a very little girl telling my mother "I don't like Ganny!"

    As I grew older and learned more of her stories - fried chicken during the depression(a story that still makes me cry for Granny), the beatings, the death of her baby, the death of her Army son in Germany- so many things that caused her to build the wall to protect her heart. Learning things that had hurt her helped me to scale that wall and find the heart of a teddy bear in that blunt gal. I went from being scared of "Ganny" to being able to freely love her because I, too, know the pain that builds those walls.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. It does help to walk a mile in their/her/his shoes...

  5. One way to ease into writing a life story is to begin with items. Heirlooms - where did the 200 year old rocking chair come from? No heirlooms? Did Mom have a "potato salad" bowl that was used for any event that called for potato salad...or green beans or deviled eggs? Did Papa have a pocket knife he used to whittle toys? Sometimes writing about objects - which may be a blessing to somene down the line - is not as scary as writing about people.