3 places to find raw material for life story and 3 sources of inspiration

When one thinks of one’s entire life and ponders writing a memoir, the sheer volume of experiences might cause writer’s block. Where to begin?

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 three sources of raw material for your life stories that will help get you started and three books to inspire you:

  1. Peruse your old diaries. I’m writing a memoir based on the year I turned 15 and learned to kiss. Entries like this one inspired whole scenes in my work-in-progress 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 langauge while massaging the content for actual emotion.

2. Copy and paste your Facebook posts. My mother recently went to Guatemala for a mission trip. She keep 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.

3. Take advantage of an online prompt provider. There are many, but one I like comes from WordPress (where I host this blog). Every day, I get a one-word prompt in my email In Box. Today’s word is pensive, for example. Imagine all the vignettes pensive might inspire. When was the last time you were pensive? What life changing events made you pensive? When should you have adopted a more pensive attitude before taking a big leap? What are you pensive about right now? These ideas from the Daily Post are meant for blog writers, but they work just as well for budding memorists.


And here are three books to inspire writers of all sorts, but especially writers of life story:

  1. Writing Down the BonesWriting 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.
  2. Skills FINAL EBook Cover after Proof NOOKSkills 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.


3. Eating An ElephantAuthor 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.


Want to write a book? Consider starting with a blog

People thinking of telling a big story might consider beginning with a blog.

As a blogger myself, I often tell people thinking of writing their life story that a blog is a great way to document individual stories and invite feedback. Think about this: You write a great little story about a memory of your Uncle Joe. You invite family members to read it, and they add comments with details of Uncle Joe you didn’t know or might have forgotten. Your Cousin Hercules add his two cents correcting one of your facts (he was always such a know-it-all anyway). Now this vignette of Uncle Joe is more complete and accurate. Once a week or so, you write another story and invite more feedback. At some point, you can assemble all your little stories into a book about your life and family, and all along, your family learns a little something about your perspective on life.

Cool, huh? Blog-to-books are an effective way to becoming an author, and I recently helped a man who’s a blogger and personal historian do just that.

Business Tips for PH Lo Rez2

Business Tips for Personal Historians: 92 Lessons Learned from a Veteran Storyteller by Dan Curtis is written for people serious about making a business of helping tell life stories in print or film but to be honest, it’s a handy reference for anyone working at home. It includes chapters on setting up a business, finding and keeping clients, marketing and pricing your work and taking care of yourself–the CEO and chief bottle washer of your business. The book is also a good study on how a blog looks and reads in print.

This is the second book by Curtis published by Personal History Press for people interested in personal histories, and it benefits members of the Association of Personal Historians, of which I am a member.

Curtis didn’t sit down and write this book in a month (or even a year). Business Tips for Personal Historians is drawn from his widely read blog which he maintained for several years (he reflects on the process of writing a blog that becomes a book in a contribution to the Association of Personal Historians blog here). Curtis, from Victoria, British Columbia, is a documentary filmmaker, writer, certified life coach and professional personal historian. Editor Kathleen McGreevy at Chapter Savers categorized, arranged and edited hundreds of blog posts to create this and a second book that came out in April (Skills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise).

My expertise came into play by designing the works into e-books and paperbacks. Buy the paperback here, the Kindle version here and the Nook version here. It was gratifying to play a role in bringing popular Curtis’ work to a new life.

Interested in turning your blog into a book? Maybe I can help. Contact me here.