How to Write Your Life Experiences in a Compelling Story
Life involves overcoming obstacles and learning lessons—that’s part of the deal. We all struggle in different ways, and when we get to the other side of those obstacles, we often want to share the story of how we got there. I talk to lots of people who want to write about their life experiences to preserve family history, make meaning out of their struggles, or help others who face similar situations. Whatever drives the urge to write a memoir, the project always involves some questions about how to make it interesting for others.
When a person wants to write a book about their life, often their first thought is to start at the beginning and write what happened chronologically. The result is a retelling of events that tends to read something like this: And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and so on. The problem is there’s no narrative. There’s no story. And it doesn’t communicate that larger, inspiring message that the author wants share. If you want to push your experiences to a higher plane of meaning and resonance, then you have to do more.
Let’s first consider why people read about other people’s lives. We often read memoirs to learn how to overcome obstacles in our own lives. A new mother struggling with post-partum depression might read a memoir about a woman in a similar situation because it makes her feel better knowing others share similar experiences. She feels better because she knows she’s not alone and has gained insight into how others dealt with her same challenges. People also like to read memoirs about people who’ve gone through different struggles because it makes them feel better about their own. For example, I’ve never experienced post-partum depression, but I know being a mom—especially in those early days—is hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done, in fact. So I might read a book a memoir about post-partum depression, in part, to make my own struggles feel less overwhelming. And finally, many people read memoirs for entertainment—for the story--the same reason they read fiction.
Writing your memoir means turning yourself into the hero, or main character, of your story. Main characters take action, and as a result, they grow and change during the story.
Consider Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love as an example. The book is essentially a memoir about a woman who gets a divorce, goes on vacation, and finds a new boyfriend. But in the process, she goes through a personal transformation that leads to an inspiring new outlook on life. People found it so inspiring, that Gilbert’s book has gone beyond memoir to become a self-help phenomenon.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, is about the author’s unconventional upbringing by two eccentric and neglectful parents. The events from this woman’s life are troubling on their own—she was badly burned as a toddler, moved from place to place by her jobless parents, molested by an uncle—but the compelling story that ties everything together is how the author escaped poverty, came to terms with her parents’ life choices, and overcame her past.
David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is about the author’s wild highs and frightening lows as a drug addict. This author did some inexcusable things, like leaving his infant twins in a car in the winter in the middle of the night outside his drug dealer’s house while he was inside getting high, but what makes him a hero that readers want to follow and root for through his dark experiences is the story of how he cleaned up his act and redeemed himself.
No matter what you experienced in your life, the key to making those events meaningful to readers is the transformation you—the main character—go through as a result. So how does that work? How can you weave your personal experiences into an engaging story? Here are a few tips.
1. Think about Your Lowest Point
One must hit bottom before they can climb back to the top, like Gilbert did when she cried about her marriage on the bathroom floor in the opening of Eat, Pray, Love. So where were you when you hit bottom? What put you there? Was it a long-overdue breakdown? Or a sudden epiphany triggered by a random event? Try to put yourself back in that place and feel those raw and powerful emotions all over again. Then write about that.
2. Plot Out the Actions You Took to Change
At what point did you realize something in your life had to change? What bold action did you take? Maybe you quit your job, or left your spouse, or sought spiritual guidance in some way. And that initial decision undoubtedly led to smaller realizations along the way. Look through your memory for these actions and realizations, and see if you can figure out how one thing led to another.
If you're writing about a transformation that happened in your life, then you are, hopefully, already transformed, which means that you have completely recovered from that terrible bottom place where you first realized something had to change. In other words, you have reached a place that allows you to look back and think, "Wow, I've come a long way." Use this perspective to think about the specifics of how your life has changed. What is different now? How do you see the world in a different way? Understanding the specifics of your transformation will allow you to write about them with clarity.
4. Understand the Narrative Arc
All stories are structured on a narrative arc, meaning, they all have a beginning, middle, and an end. Making your life transformation story successful means arranging the events along an arc, showing your starting point, your actions, and your challenges, and eventually rising to a big realization or dramatic climax. Then your story should level off and wrap up with a satisfying ending, which is where you're fully transformed. Understanding how the narrative arc works makes your story satisfying to read and meaningful to others.
Writing Your Story
Overcoming obstacles and growing as a person are part of life. When writing a story based on your life, you have to think about how you faced those obstacles and how doing so made you a different, better you. Whether you’re writing to preserve your family history, or writing to publish for a larger audience, using these tips to write your life experiences will make your story more interesting for those who read it.
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About the Author:
Melinda has ghostwritten fifteen books and has an MFA in creative writing. Her own work has been published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, online and in print. She helps her clients get their books done and into the world. For more information, visit her at www.writerssherpa.com.