Writing Your Life Story — Tips And Techniques For Success

Once a luxury of the rich and famous, technology has, for the first time in history, made it possible for anyone to capture, share and preserve their most precious life stories. With the advent of computers, the Internet, digital photography, video, and audio, anyone can capture the richness and texture of their life stories. These personal histories will be appreciated by family, friends, and future generations.

Today it is possible to easily blend the art of traditional biography and memoir with powerful new technologies into a new form of individual life storytelling: the personal life history. Personal life histories are satisfying to create. And, because of the interactive multimedia possibilities inherent in computers and the web, a well-done personal life history can be rich and fully rounded in ways that are impossible to achieve in text-only memoir or biography. But most importantly, personal life histories preserve vital individual and family stories. And, when properly done, they will last for generations.

In this article you will discover how to use time-honored life story writing techniques along with the latest technologies to create a story that is uniquely «you.»

The Art of Traditional Life-Story Formats

For anyone interested in creating their own autobiography, memoir or personal life history, it is important to understand the distinctions between these forms of telling one’s own life story. To over-generalize for a moment, an autobiography is more fact-based, while a memoir is more emotion-based.

Autobiographies are written by the subject, sometimes with the collaboration of another writer. Autobiographical works take many forms, from intimate writings made during life that are not necessarily intended for publication (including letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and reminiscences) to the formal autobiography. Interestingly, the autobiography format does not necessarily have to be true. It may also be a literary fictional tale.

Memoirs are a form of personal recollection that has grown enormously in popularity in recent times. Memoirs often focus on more subjective recollections such as memories, feelings, and emotions and are generally written from the first-person viewpoint. The memoir is often focused on capturing certain meaningful highlights or moments.

In his own Memoir, Palimpest, Gore Vidal writes that «a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.»

Memoirs usually focus on a brief period of time or a series of connected events (an autobiography covers a longer time period). In a memoir, the writer is usually retrospective, and contemplating past events. Memoirs may incorporate the techniques of storytelling such as setting, plot, conflict, character development, foreshadowing, flashback, irony or symbolism. And lastly, writing one’s memoir often has a therapeutic effect for the writer.

Oral History Recordings

An oral history is a verbatim transcription of an interview, left in the narrator’s exact words. These are usually left in a question-and-answer style and are an economical way to preserve family stories. A recording system with a good-quality microphone and a quiet spot free from interruptions are all that is really needed to capture an oral history. It helps to have questions prepared in advance of the interview.

Oral histories are usually recorded using analog tape or digital recording equipment, but it is also possible to record directly into a personal computer. Oral histories are often transcribed (typed or word processed) into a document format. The conversational style is appealing for its easygoing informality.

Caveats: Recording formats and standards are constantly evolving and could become difficult or impossible to play back if the equipment becomes obsolete. Taped recordings decay over time.

Video History Recordings

Do-it-Yourself: At the basic level, it’s easy and fun to create a basic video history. Camcorders are relatively inexpensive, and many computers today come with basic editing software. Capturing a good video history shares all of the same prerequisites as an audio recording: a quiet spot, with questions prepared in advance. Plus, you will want an uncluttered background, flattering lighting, and right clothing to improve the quality of the end product. White shirts, pants or dresses, for example don’t show up well on video. Likewise, busy patterns can be distracting. Solid light-colored neutrals or pastels are usually safe.

Professional videographers: A large number of professional video companies specialize in the creation of life story productions. Productions may range from a 10 or 15 minute short to an hour or longer mini-movie, complete with titles, music, and other Hollywood-style effects. Naturally, you’ll pay more for a professional production than a homegrown effort.

When selecting a professional use all the usual smart-consumer tips. Ask for references. Ask to see samples of prior work. Get all costs, production timetables and commitments in writing. It’s delightful to have movies of an individual or family. When well-executed they often have entertainment value and are great for special occasions.

Caveat: As with audio recordings, formats change over time, and media can degrade, even with proper storage methods

The Integration of Art and Technology: Web-Based Personal Life Histories

Just in the last few years, the Web has emerged as a powerful new medium for creating and sharing life stories. On the web it is not only possible, it is enjoyable and easy to create a rich multimedia story with text, photos, audio and video. This is the new format of the personal life history.

Web-based personal life histories enjoy several advantages over paper-based publishing, audio, video, or even CD life stories. Specifically, Web-based publication is updateable-one can add new information at any time. It is easily shareable among friends or family. The most advanced sites offer choices of privacy and security protection. The web is also multimedia, meaning you can add text, photos, audio, and video. Photos, audio, video are never lost, damaged destroyed. An finally, many sites offer print-on-demand, allowing you to create instant books. The books may be printed on your home printer, or sent out to small-run publishers. If you choose the small-run option, be sure to specify archival quality paper.

One of the biggest advantages of web publishing is the ability to build community around similar interests, occupations, backgrounds or life events. For example, a WWII veteran pilot who posts his story to the Web and makes it available to the public may be contacted by long-lost friends, other veterans, students, historians, museum personnel, or others interested in this pivotal chapter in American history.

Why Create Your Personal Life History?

Mark Twain once said: «There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is impossibility. Inside everyone, there is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy.»

A personal life history can be as short as a few pages, or several volumes in length. Whatever the length or medium, it requires thoughtfulness and sometimes quite a bit of work to accomplish. But the work is worthwhile because it has the ability to influence generations ahead. Your personal life history may leave a legacy for your children and grandchildren. As with memoir, writing a personal history allows you to examine and reflect on your life up to the present day. It lets you add your story to the larger historical record of your family, city, and country. And lastly, if you don’t do it, who will?

Start with a Timeline of Life Chapters

How does one start to tell the story of a life that may cover 60, 70, 80 years or more? Often it’s helpful to create a chronological timeline of major events in your life. It helps to jot down a few notes around key phases in your life. In fact, you may already be thinking of your life as a book, with separate, distinct chapters built around important life episodes.

Of course, not everyone’s life follows an identical chronological sequence, but here are a few ideas for chapter headings for your book or story. GreatLifeStories. uses the following «chapters» to organize life stories:

o Your Beginnings

o In Your Neighborhood

o School Days

o Off to Work

o Romance and Marriage

o War and Peace

o Triumphs and Tragedies

o Words of Wisdom

o Humor

o Words of Gratitude

The chapter system is very flexible. For example, you don’t have to start your life story with the days of your birth and youth. Perhaps you had a fascinating experience during the war. As with a movie, you might open your life story with that «scene,» then tell the story how you got there.

Once you’ve got an idea for the «flow,» of your story, here are some more specific guidelines to help add color, texture, and authenticity:

  1. Just start writing! Do a mind dump. Get it out of your head and down on paper, the computer, the tape recorder, wherever. Don’t worry about how it sounds. Just write. Resist the temptation to edit yourself; there will be time for editing later.
  2. Be yourself. Don’t worry if your grammar or spelling isn’t perfect. Write it as you would say it.
  3. Honesty is everything. The best writing tells it like it happened.
  4. Include humor. Favorite jokes, stories, anecdotes
  5. Detail, detail, detail. What kind of floor did the kitchen have? What color was the scarf she wore when you first met?
  6. Go at a comfortable pace. Don’t try to capture an entire lifetime in a single session of furious writing. Write, allow time to reflect, and return again to writing.
  7. Consult others. Family members and friends can be invaluable sources of facts and interpretation.
  8. Use photos to jog your memory. Tip: Set out photos in a timeline of your life, starting from your very youngest days, and moving through current times. Write or record to your visual storyboard
  9. Look for themes in your life. Themes are broad ideas that are central to your life. Did you always want to be a pilot? A preacher? Own a restaurant? Be a farmer? Tell the story of how you met your goal, or how the goal changed to something else totally unexpected.

Here are just a few other thematic life story possibilities: a. The Spiritual quest b. The Confession c. The Travelogue d. The Portrait e. The Complaint f. Humor g. The Family history h. The Road to Recovery i. War Story j. Romance

Another Option: Hire a Professional

Most of this article has been focused on creating the do-it-yourself personal life history. There is, of course, the option of working with a professional. The right professional writer or videographer is a highly skilled interviewer and has the proper tools and equipment. And, believe it or not, it is sometimes easier for someone to open up in front of a stranger rather than in front of a family member.

There are many approaches to working with writers or videographers. However, there are a number of similarities in common. The writer/videographer often:

1) Meets with you to determine the scope and cost of the project.

2) Usually sets up taped interview sessions. Depending on your objectives, these may be an hour or two, or 10, 20 hours or more.

3) The recording is transcribed and edited with your input and guidance

4) Once a final manuscript/movie is agreed upon, it may be sent out for printing or duplication.

5) For books, personal history professionals recommend archival bindings and acid-free paper for longevity

6) You receive the number of books/movies agreed upon in your contract.

7) Be sure to discuss services, fees and end products in advance, and get all agreements in writing.

Thanks to high technology, the art of capturing and preserving the stories from one’s own life is now open to more people and easier than ever before. A new genre of personal storytelling is emerging that draws on the literary traditions of the autobiography and memoir, while adding audio, video, and web technology to create personal life histories. On the Web, these personal stories personal life histories are multimedia, collaborative, shareable, and instantly updateable.

Enjoy capturing your life story!

References and Further Reading

Web Sites:



The Association of Personal Historians is a 600+ member organization of professional personal historians who create life stories in all formats: text, audio, video. ..personalhistorians.

How-to Books:

There are many good books filled with different approaches and tips for writing a personal life history. Here are just a few:

Daniel, Lios, How to Write Your Own Life Story

Rainer, Tristine, Your Life as Story Books

Roorbach, Bill, Writing Life Stories

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