How to write your life

I am waiting with bated breath for a memoir to arrive in my inbox, written by my father. Working title? My Story by Russell S. Durling. I’ve been a tiny bit coach and a big part cheerleader for my 85-year old dad, as he worked his way through a project he had talked about for years, and finally began on a deck in Spain.

As the stupid pandemic was building up around the world, my dad was putting words on paper — actual paper! with a pen! — as he and my mother spent a few warm months away. I’m so proud of him. I know it will be a treasure for my sister and me but also the nieces, nephews and all the other descendants who love him like we do. He is a treasure and it makes me smile to just think about holding his story in my hands.

You can write one too.

You don’t have to be A Writer to write your life story for your family and friends. What is required is some resolution on your part, and a chunk of time. Honestly, that’s about it. As a Christmas gift for my dad, we pieced together a writing kit to help kickstart his project. It included a few pads of legal sized paper, some pens with what we would call a smooth and unfettered flow that fit just so into the inspired and hardworking hand, and a handful of index cards on which I had written out some questions to prime the writing and memory pump. The questions included things like:

  • What did you learn from your career?
  • What has been your favourite hobby?
  • What are your favourite memories of growing up?

Questions like those — writers like to call these prompts — offer you a handhold on that awful, empty, white expanse of a page that has brought many a writing project to a screeching halt before the train even left the station. Dad worked methodically through the questions and then encountered that magic of wanting to keep writing. He became his own writing prompt.

Later, during a two-week lockdown we shared together in Nova Scotia, I offered to transcribe Dad’s pages onto the computer, and that was one of the best typing jobs I’ve ever been given. I enjoyed every moment of it.

If you’ve been thinking about writing up your life story to share with your loved ones, let me encourage you to dive into the deep end. They will be so happy. Believe me, they want you to do this. But wading (or waiting) does not work, in my experience, with cold water or writing your life story. Jump in. Just start by writing. And don’t start by worrying.

Here are some other tips:

  • Do not start at the beginning. You’ll kill your reader’s desire to read and your own desire to write. We don’t ever have to find out your birthdate, or weight! (Your mother cared, but she’s probably already gone to glory. Don’t get bogged down in details).
  • Jump in at the middle or whichever first, strong memory you have that you want to share. Just start there. You can reorganize things later if you want, or don’t ever bother reorganizing at all. A life story can absolutely be a series of lively, short essays with you being the only connecting link. It will all come together at the end. People will figure it out.
  • It’s always best to write what you feel some energy around, so give that some thought (not a lot of thought…just a small portion of thought). Where is your energy? What do you want to write about? What don’t you want to write about? Choose one of those topics and start writing.
  • Perfectionism is the enemy of writing. Forget about trying to be great and simply amazing. Don’t try so hard. Relax and let the memories pour out like maple syrup on French toast. Your writing won’t be graded, judged or dismissed. Instead, you will be hugged, kissed and thanked.
  • If you don’t want to compose it on the computer, don’t. Write it long hand if that’s easier. Lots of writers prefer pen on paper. Just find a nice person (or a doting daughter) to transcribe it for you if you don’t want to do it yourself. Whenever you’re ready is just fine.
  • When you feel it’s done, just stop. Your life story doesn’t have to look like the ones in the bookstore. No need to get all tied up into a pretzel about it. Unwind your story as if you were laying yourself down on that long soft couch in your living room. Relax. Deep breaths. Stretch out. Be comfortable.
  • If you want it to ‘read better,’ leave it alone for a month or two, and then go back and read it over as if you were a stranger who found a book on the bus. You’ll see some things to change and the whole thing will be even better.

That’s all there is to it, really. Dad wrote up a little how-to for The Gabriel, their church’s newsletter, where he shared some well-earned expertise. “Once you start writing from the time of your first memory of yourself the family history will start coming vividly to you. There is assistance online help in such a project, such as ‘picking an event and writing about it,’ ‘my grandparents,’ ‘my first car,’ etc. So, I would encourage you all to consider writing your story and memories of your past, so that it does not get lost forever.”

My dad is right!

1 thought on “How to write your life”

  1. LOVE this, Karen! (And thanks to Janet for posting it). What a gift to have this story from your dad. I was just reading some memories of my great grandparents when I saw Janet’s post, so I feel especially moved. Your piece is so encouraging. I’m going to forward it to my mom. 😉 She’s begun hers.

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