Should You Write That Life Story?

By Janey Womeldorf

If the title piqued your interest enough to start reading this, then you already know the answer. You even know who you’d write about don’t you? For some of you, it may be yourself; for others, it’s that one family member whose life and experiences are so unique and precious, you know if they are not captured by you, they will be lost forever.

And memories lost forever are exactly that.

So, if you’ve been procrastinating about doing this, I have a suggestion for you this summer: start writing. If you don’t have time; find it. If you don’t have a computer, use a notebook. If you don’t know where to start, write “Once upon a time…” and see where it leads you. You will never be sorry.

I wrote my mother-in-law’s story and never a day goes by that I don’t breathe pride and relief that we took the time. I titled her book, Who Knew? because of the slew of never-heard stories that spilled from its pages. I chose to open the book with her recollections of her parent’s love story which led nicely into the where, what and when details surrounding her own birth. It covered depression-era stories of wealth lost, the pain of auctioning their farm, houses traded on a handshake, midnight climbs out of bedroom windows, even her excitement over their first shower, albeit outdoors! Her day-to-day tales of growing up without refrigeration or indoor plumbing were both humbling and riveting. It was a slice of history captured forever, a magical story that deserved to be told and a wonderful tribute to a beautiful woman.

1. Getting Started

Ask questions – lots of them. There are numerous life-story-writing books available featuring hundreds of memory-jolting questions. Search them out online or in your local bookstore. I did consider making my own list, but realize now I would have missed out on so much because I might not have thought to ask questions like what was her most memorable present.

She was eight years old, money was scarce, but she received a beautiful doll with a china face that Christmas. Her school was a one-roomed building with rustic outhouses and one day, she and her friend, Nellie, decided to play make believe with their new dolls and took them to the outhouse so that the dolls could “go potty.” Tragedy struck, however, when her beautiful doll fell through the wooden hole into the stinking pit below. That night, she cried and cried when she told her father but felt for sure he’d go rescue her; he never did. She had so few toys and now her beloved doll was gone forever. Fifty years later, it was still heartbreaking.

2. Gathering the Information

Gathering the information takes time so schedule several afternoons to ask questions and make notes. You want more than just a string of data and facts so probe beyond initial answers. Let’s assume you are writing the life story about your Dad and you ask the question: “What was your first job?” Your father responds, “I worked at the local store.” Don’t stop there – expand the story. How did you get the job? How much did you get paid? What did you spend your first paycheck on? What was your proudest day/worst day? Tell me about your memorable customers. How did you get to work? What was in your lunch box?

Before you know it, stories will spill out and you will have a chapter. Then, tie up the initial what-was-your-first-job-question with: Why did you leave? Chances are this will transition you on to another stage of his life, and another chapter.

3. Other Useful Material

If multiple family members feature heavily in the book, you may want to compose a basic two or three-generational family tree as a handy-reader guide. (For the super creative, consider including this as a bookmark versus an appendix page.) Scanning old photos – including family members, even houses they grew up in – can help embellish the memories.

4. Putting it together.

Group the memories, and think about how you want to present them. Do you want the book to be a chronological story? Or do you want the book to be a collection of stories by subject; for example, a chapter on all his jobs, a chapter on his family, a chapter on school and so on. Also, don’t assume you need to cover his entire life. You may want to focus on just one era – from birth to age 18, or his military service. Or, if you are writing about your parents, focus on their lives up until they became Mom and Dad. Ask questions, listen to the stories, and then ask yourself which ones most captured your attention. Answer that, and you’ve probably found the essence of your book.

5. Whose voice is telling the story?

I wanted the story to sound like my mother-in-law was telling it, so I chose to use “I” and “my” when writing it; for example, “My first job was…l” You may, however, prefer to write in the third person as in, “Dad’s first job was at a store. He stocked shelves for 50 cents an hour.”

6. Finding the Time

You have the stories, you’ve decided how to write it; the bigger issue is whether you have the time. Everybody has twenty-four hours in a day, seven days a week. In two weeks, two months, even two years, your errands and your laundry will still be there. The memories, however, may not.

Memories can get foggy as some people get older so resist waiting and find the time. Besides, nothing is more magical than watching their faces light up as they remember things they have not thought about in fifty years.

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In this case, it’s a single question: Should you write it?

And you already know that answer.

About this writer

  • Janey Womeldorf Janey Womeldorf once went to work wearing different shoes. She now freelance writes and scribbles away in Orlando, Florida. It’s probably best.

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One Response to “Should You Write That Life Story?”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful essay. I have heard it said that when an older person passes away, it’s as if a library has burned down. It’s important that we keep the knowledge they’ve acquired over the years for future generations, and your essay has provided a guideline for doing just that.

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