How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer

How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer

3.6 5
by Lois Daniel

View All Available Formats & Editions

Writing the story of one’s life sounds like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. This warmhearted, encouraging guide helps readers record the events of their lives for family and friends. Excerpts from other writers’ work are included to exemplify and inspire. Provided are tips on intriguing topics to write about, foolproof tricks to jog


Writing the story of one’s life sounds like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. This warmhearted, encouraging guide helps readers record the events of their lives for family and friends. Excerpts from other writers’ work are included to exemplify and inspire. Provided are tips on intriguing topics to write about, foolproof tricks to jog your memory, ways to capture stories on paper without getting bogged down, ways to gather the facts at a local library or historical society, inspired excerpts from other writers, and published biographies that will delight and motivate.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An inspiration and a practical guide to writing your autobiography.” —KLIATT

“Leads you through the process of story creation for nonprofessionals in a way that is easy and fun.” —Women’s Words

Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
Fourth Edition, Fourth edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

How To Write Your Own Life Story

The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer

By Lois Daniel

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1997 Lois Daniel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-446-6


Setting Up Your Memory Bank

You will need two loose-leaf notebooks for writing your story. One is the book you will write in. This one will need lined paper if you are going to write by hand or plain paper if you use a typewriter or a computer. If you write by hand, write only on every second or third line so you will be able to add words and thoughts, make corrections, and more. If you type, always double space for the same reason.

The other notebook, which should definitely have lined paper, is your memory bank, into which you will deposit facts about your past as they come to mind — just a few words to keep the thought from getting away is all you need to put down. You will find that these facts will gather "interest" just like a savings account. As you read them over again and again and begin to write your story, one memory will spark another and multiply itself many times. Make a note of each of these new memories and soon you will have a wealth of material from which to write your story.

As you begin to work, you will use the first fifty-one pages of your memory bank notebook, one for each assignment. You may use more later but this will get you started. In the upper right-hand corner of each page, using a red pencil, copy from your book the name of each assignment (see Assignments, p. 243), one assignment to a page. For example, your first page will be (1–Birth), your second (2–Toys), and so on. Make a page for each assignment in the book right in the beginning — don't wait until you come to each assignment in the book — because if the pages are all ready you will be more likely to jot down and save ideas as they come to you.


Ground Rules

In her beautiful and simply written autobiography, Grandma Moses: My Life's Story, Anna Mary Moses tells us exactly how she wrote the story of her life. She says, "I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, as I have thought of it, as I remember all the things from childhood on through the years, good ones, and unpleasant ones, that is how they come out and that is how we have to take them."

One could scarcely find a better formula for writing one's life story, and I hope you will resolve to begin to write about your life in small sketches, a little today, a little tomorrow, as you remember all of the things from your childhood and through the years, both the good things and the unpleasant things. This book is designed to help you do exactly that.

Here are a few ground rules that I would like for you to apply as you work on this exciting project:

1. Don't worry about how it sounds. Don't work for style. Just write whatever comes into your head as if you were writing a letter to your closest friend. Many beginning students worry so much about achieving a certain style in their writing that they can't get beyond the first paragraph. Don't waste a minute in this manner. There will be plenty of time later if you want to revise. (There is a chapter on revision later in the book.) Even many professional writers write their first drafts without any thought as to how their work sounds. They just want to get their story down on paper.

2. Be yourself. Write the way you talk. Don't be embarrassed if you know that your grammar is faulty. This is your story and it should sound like you. The way you have talked all of your life is the way you should write and the way that will best reflect you. One of the most delightful autobiographies I have ever read is Anything Can Happen by George Papashvily, an immigrant from Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. It is written in badly garbled English, but that is part of its charm. Here is an example of Papashvily's writing in which he tells about being apprenticed to a swordmaker when he was 10 years old:

* * *

Work 14 hours in every day and the master's wife had a pleasure to wash, always to wash. In suds and out of, rubbing and scrubbing, even the walls and window and street before the door knew her brush and mop. And for all this I had the duty in my spare time to carry buckets of water from the well. Coupla days in the house and a person could enjoy to be dirty rest of his life.

* * *

In spite of the language handicap (which actually added charm to his book and thus proved to be more an asset than a handicap), Papashvily managed to write a touching and often hilariously funny book.

One of my students, who grew up in the Ozarks, wrote about a "poke" full of potatoes. Several of the members of the class didn't know what a poke was, and she had to explain that it was a sack. She started to substitute "sack" for "poke" when she realized that the other students didn't understand what she was talking about. However, we all insisted that she leave it exactly as she had written it. The word poke added a valuable regional flavor to her story.

3. Be honest. Don't write about things as you wish they had been. Write about them the way they actually were. Take time to think through each incident and be sure you are telling it exactly as it happened, trimming away anything you may have added mentally through the years.

All good writing is an excursion into honesty. We rush madly along through life, often acting or reacting in a given situation without thinking much about how we really feel about it. When we write about our lives, we must take time to analyze our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. If you have never written before, you will find this sort of analysis a rewarding experience. You will start to write something and a little voice inside you will say, "Just a minute, is that the way it really happened?" or "What did you really think about that — what do you think about that now?" When this voice speaks to you, take time to listen to it and then heed it. You may find you will meet someone with whom you have had little time to get acquainted — yourself! (Of course, as you begin to unlock your closet of memories some skeletons that you just don't want to write about may tumble out. If so, it's your choice whether to include them in your story. Just be sure that everything you do write is as honest as you can make it.)

4. Don't let your story be just a sterile recital of events. Write about your feelings and opinions. Talk about your relationships with the people in your family, the people you worked with, went to school with, and so on. How did you feel about them?

5. Whenever possible, relate things that happened in the distant past to things that have happened in the present or recent past. This isn't always possible, but when it is, it will greatly enrich your story. I will give an example of relating distant and recent past events in Assignment Two and later in the chapter on revision.

6. Read some books that other people have written about their lives. There is a list of recommended autobiographies in the back of this book. Of course there are thousands of others, but these are books that I have read or that my students have read and recommend. You will enjoy reading them and they will remind you of things you will want to write about. Incidentally, I heartily recommend that as soon as possible you go to the library and get a copy of Grandma Moses' book. It is short and simply written and you can read it very quickly. I believe it will start you thinking about your own past and fill you with enthusiasm for your writing.

7. Remember to include humor. Your life wasn't all serious so don't let your descendants think it was. Tell them about some of the things that made you laugh when they happened and about others that didn't seem funny at the time but at which you were able to laugh in retrospect.

8. Share a little wisdom with your descendants. What sustained you through life's rough spots? The people who read your story are bound to have difficult times and it may help them to know you had problems and survived. But don't yield to the temptation to lecture them!

9. Describe the scenes in which the events you recount took place. Did the kitchen have a wood stove? A pump or water bucket? Kerosene lamps? Rag rugs?

10. Reread this list of ground rules often as you are writing.


Working On Your Assignments

You will note that the assignments are not necessarily in chronological order. You can arrange them chronologically when you put your story together if you want to. However, sometimes flashbacks make a story more interesting and so does occasionally reaching forward to tie the past to the present. You may want to arrange some of your stories with these thoughts in mind. There are many arrangement possibilities. We will cover these in the chapter on revision and pulling it all together.

You may not want to work on the assignments in the order that they are presented in this book. That's fine. Work on them as memories come to you and as you are able to gather necessary information. The main thing is to start writing and keep writing. If you hit a snag because you need to write to a relative to fill in some facts or need to go to the library to confirm dates, make a note on the appropriate assignment page in your memory bank. Jot down the information you need and the steps you have taken or intend to take to get it and go on to something else in the meantime. I have known of several potentially valuable personal histories that have floundered because the writer felt compelled to write in chronological order and was stumped for a few facts.

When you finish writing an assignment, take it out of your writing notebook and put it behind the appropriate page in your memory bank notebook. You can add more to any assignment later if you think of more you want to say. Since the pages are all loose-leaf it will be easy to slip additions in with the proper story.

Of course, you won't be working with a class, but working with this book will be very much like attending one of my classes. In class I make an assignment of one of the topics listed in the book. Students then go home and write their stories based on the subject assigned. The next week they read their stories aloud. I make no attempt to correct the written assignments unless a student asks for help, and there are no lectures on writing techniques. All we want to do is to trigger as many of the student's memories as possible and get them down on paper.

Listening to others read their assignments aloud starts students' memory association processes working. One person's story will remind someone else of something he or she wants to write. For example, one man wrote that his father used to whittle a lot in the evening. This reminded another student that her father used to carve tops out of wooden spools. "Dad would get lots of tops spinning at one time in one of mother's big flat cake pans," she said. "We kids all used to lie on our stomachs on the floor around the pan in front of the kitchen stove and see how many tops he could have spinning at one time before some of them began to run down. I remember he got twenty-one going once. I don't remember whether he ever topped that or not, but it used to be a real family game to play with those tops."

This book will provide the same kind of memory association exercises for you. In each assignment I have not only given suggestions for how to go about working on it, I have also included one or more sample life history stories on the subject of the assignment. Reading these stories will remind you of things you want to write about, give you ideas of ways to present your stories, and generally inspire you.

Perhaps you won't want to do some of the assignments. That is up to you, but put the pages in your memory bank anyway. As you work through the various assignments you may remember some things you have forgotten and you might find you want to do the assignment after all.

Perhaps you will think of some assignments that are especially applicable to your life. If so, make up a special page for each of these. For example, in Anything Can Happen George Papashvily devotes an entire chapter to his almost desperate search in the United States for someone who could speak Georgian. He spoke enough English to get along in his everyday life and enough Russian and Turkish to speak with a few other immigrants, but he had a terrible hunger to hear and speak his own language. The chapter about his two-year search for one of his countrymen is a fascinating addition to his book. You may have a special subject like this that will add something unique to your story. If so, by all means make a memory page for it and then write it.

One of the first things beginning journalism students are taught is that every news story must answer the following questions for the reader: Who? What? Why? How? Where? and When? You should keep these words in mind as you write your story. Down the left-hand side of each assignment sheet in your memory bank (using your red pencil again so they will stand out) write these six words, leaving several lines between each word for notes. Make notes on the memory sheet under the appropriate heading as they occur to you, and when you actually do your writing be sure that all or most of these six questions are answered.

So, now let's begin — the first assignment is your birth page.



First, we have to put a few vital statistics into your memory bank on your birth page. I will use the birth information of one of my students as a sample.

* * *

Who: Doris Pettit

What: A girl

Where: At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

When: May 15, 1893

Why: A superficial answer to this question would be that she was born there because her father, an army officer, was stationed there. However, only her entire life story will actually tell why she was born.

How: Delivered by a Dr. Miller

Parents: Garver and Ellen Pettit — Married September 18, 1882.

* * *

Now we come to a fascinating part of making up your birth page. Do you know what kind of world you were born into? Not the kind of a world you first remember, but the kind into which you were actually born? Of twenty students in my last class — all relatively well educated — only nine knew for sure who was president of the United States when they were born. Most were quite chagrined to discover their lack of this knowledge, but that's how it was.

An exciting way to discover the world into which you were born is to read a newspaper published the day you were born. If you live in a large city, your public library probably has microfilms of old newspapers. (The Kansas City, Missouri Public Library, for example, has microfilms of the Kansas City Star as far back as 1881.) Call your library, tell them the date of the paper you need, and ask whether they have it. If they do, plan to spend at least half a day reading a microfilm of the paper. It is an engrossing experience. You'll love the advertisements!

One thing I discovered was that the clothes I first remember seeing bore no resemblance to the clothes that people were wearing at the time I was born. There was a drastic style change between my birth and my earliest memory.

Make notes in your memory bank of all important information about what was going on on your birth date. Later, use the information to write a story about what was happening on that date. You might get some photocopies made of interesting pictures, stories, and advertisements and paste them in your finished book.

If there were any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding your birth be sure to include them. One woman, for example, says that when she was fifty-six years old she discovered she had been born "nowhere," and in writing about her birth she reminds us of how very young our country is:

I was born on October 14,1905, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, daughter of Mansel Thomas and Lottie Bell (Gould) Williams. I was a very small "blue" baby and the doctor gave me little chance of surviving. My parents had selected the name Lillian, if the baby were a girl, but they had not decided on a middle name. In our church it is the practice to have babies blessed instead of baptized. My mother and father wanted me blessed before I died but were so distraught about my dying that they could not give even a thought to a second name for me. My grandfather, Mortimore Burrows Williams, was living with us for a short time, and he had been reading a poem which was signed "Carabel." He said to my parents, "Why not Carabel for a middle name?" They agreed.

Grandpa was an elder in the church and was authorized to bless babies so he blessed me sometime during the night. I have carried the name Lillian Carabel for more than seventy-three years. I have never liked my middle name and my mother has admitted that she didn't care much for it either. "But," she said to me on one occasion, "I thought you were only going to have to live with it for a few hours!"

We moved to Missouri before I was a year old. I had always heard that New Mexico was not yet a state when I was born but I had never thought much about it until I was fifty-six years old and planning a trip to Europe. I needed a birth certificate in order to get a passport but I discovered that the New Mexico territorial government had kept no vital statistics and there was no record of my birth. Suddenly, I felt as if I had been born "nowhere!" It took me nearly four months to assemble all of the information New Mexico required in order to acknowledge my birth. As I write this in 1979 I can't help thinking how new our country is. At the time I was born there were only forty-five states in the Union.


Excerpted from How To Write Your Own Life Story by Lois Daniel. Copyright © 1997 Lois Daniel. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Forthe past 11-1/2 years I have taught a class in memoir writing. Before I started the class I did a good deal of research and found this book to be the one I liked best. There are from 25 to 30 participants in the weekly classes, and without exception they appreciate Lois Daniel's book. The book contains many examples that can trigger memories for the memoir writer. During my time as a memoir instructor, I have sold more than three hundred of her books to the students, and they have responded by writing fascinating memoirs to hand down to their families. I have no hesitation in recommending Lois Daniel's book to anyone contemplating writing their memoirs.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This books is kind of col but i want to become my own writer
Crystal_BYU-Idaho More than 1 year ago
I have read a step-by-step guide for non-professional writers to gain insight from the experiences of others. The author started her career with an autobiographical workshop for older adults. Lois Daniel began writing, How to Write Your Own Life Story as a book when she saw that younger people were just as interested in writing about their present life as those in her workshop. I was able to read personal stories from letters, diaries, and journals of those who were discovering their own writing style. Daniel's main idea for beginning to write a life story is to have her students begin a "memory bank". She explains the best way to start is to have a "two loose-leaf notebooks for writing your story" to record your memories with. When writing by hand ideas will come to you spontaneously and this notebook will allow you to record these memories when they come. She has her students write assignments to generate a starting point and when other ideas begin to pop into your mind your memory bank is where you go to write about those memories that come back to you. Daniel says, ".they come to mind (fast) - just a few words to keep the thought from getting away is all you need to put down." The different pages you label to prepare your notebook are things like: toys, birth, religion, holidays, turning points, inventions, family traditions, and more. By doing this you know where to write those fast coming thoughts and can come back to them. I find this book to have a fun and insightful way to look at the past. I really enjoyed reading the excerpts she added in from the workshops she has had over the years. They added a unique character to the book. I would recommend this book to anyone. It is full of ideas that get you thinking about genealogy and family times. Start recording now and you will have more to share with family latter in life. As I have thought about my own life I have had ideas come to my mind that I never thought would be interesting to others. After reading her experiences I have seen that I do have an interesting family. I have a lot of good stories that I could pass on to my children. I hope that if I were to do something like Daniels that my family would appreciate the time I put in to it. I believe that when we get older things like genealogy become more important. If I start while I am young I could bring a lot more happiness to my life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be a little to complex for a beginner writing about their own life. It made it too complex and too technical. I wanted something that was going to guide me step by step in getting my thoughts in order but this was not it.