In my last column, I addressed the benefits of writing a memoir, both for yourself and your family members. After working with close to two dozen individuals who wanted to commit their life experiences to paper, I have learned that everyone's story has value. You don't have to be a hero, a survivor or an inspiring paragon of virtue to be worthy of having your story placed between two covers.
Several years ago, a number of small publishers began releasing beautifully bound gift books along the lines of "Grandma Remembers" or "Grandpa's Stories." These printed volumes had lots of empty lines that were ready to be filled in by the recipient, who would then present the finished product to his or her loved ones. The problem was that most of these people had plenty of good intentions but somehow never got around to filling in any of the blanks beyond the first 20 pages.
The reason for this is when it comes to writing about ourselves, most of us can't see the forest from the trees (pardon the pun). In other words, what other people might find fascinating appears to be mundane to us, or vice versa. Whenever a new client asks me for help while working on a memoir, I offer these warnings before we begin:
—Approach the project with the mindset of an architect. Do not even think about the little issues (light fixtures or wallpaper) until you have constructed a solid foundation.
—Create a very flexible table of contents (it's sure to be revised several times). I ask my students to think of 30 things they want to share with the reader. I then have them place these events or topics in chronological order to ensure that their story will flow.
—Create a mental elevator pitch, because it will help you bring your story into focus. This is the discipline of describing your story in fewer than 50 words. For example: "This is the story of an Army veteran who survived losing both arms and both legs during his third tour in Afghanistan. He learned to triumph over this unexpected tragedy." (This is actually based on retired Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills' memoir "Tough as They Come" and the documentary "Travis: A Soldier's Story".)
After that, the hard work of looking at your life — the ups as well as the downs — begins. To trigger my students' memory, I often tell them to ask themselves the following questions:
—Who had the greatest influence on you as an adult and as a child?
—What would you say is the most important lesson you have learned in your life?
—Have there been unwelcome events that brought about positive outcomes?
—What can you tell others that you wish you had known earlier?
Next week's column will wrap up additional ways to preserve your legacy and capture your unique life story.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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