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Four ways to write about your life

There’s more than one way to craft a personal or family story. Consider how you could create a form that fits your personal style and passion.

If a memoir is a slice of life, you might want to write one based on your recipes, gardens you’ve grown, or cars you’ve owned. Find more ideas about structuring your life story in the examples below.

A life in lists. In a workshop I attended, Patricia Charpentier, author of Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time, shared different approaches to writing a life story, including one made up of lists. She once worked with a man who never wrote a complete sentence. He processed his life by making daily lists. Charpentier said the man had been making a list every day for 30 years. Topics included, “What I like about so and so,” the headlines of the day, and what movie was showing.

If you’re interested in writing a life story in lists, check out Listography Journal: Your Life in Lists by Lisa Nola.

War memoirs. In Dispatches, Michael Herr wrote a classic account of the Vietnam War based on his experience as a front-line reporter.

Years ago, people used to write more letters and save the ones they received. These become part of a family’s history. In Your Loving Son, Philip: Letters From An American Soldier in World War II May 1944-June 1946, Philip and Helene Herzig compiled letters that Philip had written to his parents during his military service. Philip describes everything from his boot camp experiences to the desolation of war-time Germany. A collection of letters can be natural structural element in other memoirs too, including those about families and romantic relationships.

A journal or narrative. A friend recently told me about how her aunt and several friends met each summer — from the time they were teenagers until they were in their 70s — to take a camping trip through the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. Each year, one of the girls would take her turn keeping a journal of the trip. I loved this story and immediately imagined a book fashioned around journal entries with photos that show the progression of their lives from girlhood to grown women.

In The Red Leather Diary, Lily Koppel penned a story about a journal that had come into her possession. She used passages from the diary written by its teenaged owner from 1929 to 1934.

Tribute stories. What better way to honor a loved one than a tribute to their life. Maybe you’ll want to honor a member of your family with a book about their experiences. Tribute books create a valuable legacy and remembrance to show the values and philosophy of loved ones. James McBride wrote a classic tribute in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.

In my next post, I’ll share four more memoir structures.

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