Sitting around binging on Netflix during a pandemic will eventually get you thinking, “This is all there is?” (You also might think, “I could write a better screenplay than that!”)
And that’s when writing a book (or screenplay) crosses your mind—the perfect use of free time during an apocalypse that requires you to stay home and lay off handshakes.
But where to begin? When one thinks of one’s entire life and ponders writing a memoir, the sheer volume of experiences might cause writer’s block.
The didactically chronological will begin with birth, but that’s the long way around. Even writing about a few life changing events can provide yourself and others with insight on living this life. I encourage inexperienced writers to begin there, with a few important moments imbued with great emotion rather than a boring date-by-date list.
Here are five sources of raw material for your life stories that will help get you started and three books to inspire you:
- Copy a favorite book. After reading I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, my uncle wrote a piece about thirteen incidents, big and small, in his life “that could have easily ended my struggles on this earth.” Talk about emotional punch. Brushes with death!
- Peruse your old diaries. I wrote an autobiographical novel based on the year I turned 15 and learned to kiss. Entries like this one inspired whole scenes in my book: “Scott (of all people) said I have nice fingernails. Freak my mind away! (That’s Amy’s saying.) We were in science doing some stupid mountains. Wow! Now I have a whole list of guys I like.” As an adult, I can admire and/or lament my simplistic language while massaging the content for actual emotion.
- Copy and paste your Facebook posts. My mother once visited Guatemala for a mission trip. She kept me, my sister and her friends apprised of her progress building a school with posts on Facebook. Every day was a little story with gems like this, “We saw a smoking volcano near our highway today. It was very warm and we hope it is cooler in the place we will work (higher altitude). We waded in the Pacific Ocean today, which was very warm here.” When she returned home, she used her posts inspire photo captions in her scrapbooks.
- Take advantage of an online prompt provider. Google “online writing prompts,” and you’ll discover 81,200,000 results. Over at ThinkWritten.com, there’s a list of 365 prompts (this year, you would have had to come up with one of your own for February 29). The suggestion for today, the 91st day of the year, is “Family Heirloom: Write about an object that’s been passed through the generations in your family.” What a great prompt for writing your life story! You could write about the family Bible, or a piece of jewelry or even family trauma.
- Cull old blog entries. My latest book, Church Sweet Home, is drawn from the blog I wrote while my husband and I renovated an old church into our home. Every night, I wrote a little story about what happened that day while it was still fresh in my mind. If you don’t already have a blog, consider starting some sort of record of your experience with COVID-19. This might make useful fodder later.
And here are three books to inspire writers of all sorts, but especially writers of life story:
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg was first published in 1986, but I recently picked it up and I’m loving it. She combines the concepts of Zen meditation and writing to get writers past the terror of the blank page. With suggestions like “What autumn was it that the moon entered your life?,” “When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment?” and “How long did you wait for your first bike?,” you’ll be off and running on stories from your life. The book is written in such as way so you can read it straight through, or simply turn to any chapter for inspiration.
- Skills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise by personal historian and blogger Dan Curtis includes chapters on “The 50 Best Life Story Questions” “The 50 Best Questions to Ask Your Mother” and “Powerful Ways to Recall Forgotten Memories.” Written for professional personal historians, this book might also inspire you to write other people’s life stories. Like Goldberg’s book, you can read this one straight through or readers can pick and choose where to dive in.
- Author Patricia Charpentier provides encouraging words and clear examples in Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time to walk you through writing your life story. I took an insightful editing class from Charpentier and enjoyed her style. She even mixes in a little Cajun French and offers insight into South Louisiana culture in her examples in her book.