When I tell someone I am writing my autobiography, I often get asked how I am able to write in depth about things that have happened in my life. Many people believe it is impossible to remember things that happened years or decades ago. I can tell you from experience that you can’t remember everything – but you can definitely remember a whole lot more than you ever imagined!
With a little help from friends and family, combined with a lot of work and detailed capturing with extensive memory exercises, I believe everyone can be successful at writing their life story.
Where I Began
I began my path to documenting my life about ten years ago at the age of 23. It seems like a very early age to start writing a personal history, I know. but it has taken me that long just to document until now. Don’t let this be discouraging though. Documenting one’s life is never complete, and the process can be very fun and therapeutic.
I first began by collecting all of the photographs and documents in my house and sorting them by year, placing them in individual envelopes, one envelope per year. You can also do this by topic, depending on how you want to write your story. Year was easiest for me because my birthday falls at the start of the school year, so it seemed a natural break for chapters. Eventually, I had all of the physical items sorted by year and in separate labeled envelopes. This took me about a year to accomplish.
At the same time I was collecting and sorting, I was cataloging “memory topics” using Microsoft Excel. A memory topic is my term for something you want to write about. I split up my memory topic into Excel sheets with a small range of years like this:
- Before school started
- Elementary School (Kindergarten through 5th grade)
- Middle School (6th grade through 8th grade)
- High School (9th grade through 12th grade)
- College Years (the first time through)
After college I split up years in chunks of 4 or 5, whatever felt natural based on what was happening in our lives. Then, I started to capture. At first you will have hundreds of memory notes to capture in each of these sections. I did tons and tons of memory exercises to help remember details of my life that I wanted to write down. Each “memory topic” got its own line in the spreadsheet, and I tried to put as precise a date as possible next to it.
For example, “Won first place in long jump at the track meet” was on “1983/04/21.” It could be a little less precise, such as “Used to go swimming at the pond with Jennie during Summer,” but use a date that you can sort by like “1985/06/01.” Do the best you can to capture a general date or time frame for each memory. That way, you can begin to sort by date. Even if you have to put only a year down, you can mark “Broke my arm swinging in the tree in the back yard sometime in 1961” and date it “1961/01/01.” This will make it easier to sort later.
There are lots of ways to jog your memory. Let’s take fifth grade. I knew where I went to school and where I lived at the time. I found my old report card and class picture to help identify what subjects I took, what my grades were, who my teacher was and some of my friends. I remembered walking to school, so I checked out Google Earth to look at my old neighborhood. That led me to recall adventures on the way to and from school, and information about the neighborhood and the kids nearby.
I drew a map of the elementary school as I could remember it, and from there I knew I was a Hall Monitor at a certain intersection and one of the boys used to run by and scare me half to death. There was a trophy case and one time my picture was hung in it for Student of the Week. Drawing the lunch room made me remember what kind of tables we had, and who I ate lunch with, and what I brought for snacking. Drawing a map of the gym and the playground helped me remember that I played softball that year, and I even dressed up like Eleanor Roosevelt for a school play. (Hey what do you know? I forgot I played Eleanor Roosevelt! Time to add another memory topic…)
I think you get the idea. Drawing maps has been a great way for me to remember little details. Draw maps of where you lived, went to school, and other places you frequented. Look up the places on Google Earth. You would be amazed at what you can find. Remember that tree you used to climb? How about that batty old neighbor who used to chase you off her property with a broom? Try and capture as much detail as possible. Write everything down at first. You can delete stuff later if you want, but you can’t write it down once you forget it again. Trust me – if you don’t write it down, you will forget it just as suddenly as you remembered it.
One thing to keep in mind is that you can write with an audience in mind, such as your children or grandchildren, but don’t assume they know everything about your memory topic. They may not know what your childhood home’s layout was, so something as simple as adding a scribbled map of your house or neighborhood will add an immense amount of context to your stories. Try to capture your memories as if you were on the reader’s side, asking questions about them. Imagine how your reader would envision your memory, and try to add as much detail as possible to make that vision correct for them.
Use the internet as a way to find out what was happening during the time of your life you are trying to remember. There are lots of pop culture trends, activities and historical events that can help. Try searching for what was popular in music, movies, books, toys, games, technology and society. Don’t forget about events of the day, which are easy to find online. Look up Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners, Billboard Top 10 lists, and political timelines. Consider what was happening in your life when that President was elected, or when the war broke out. How did it impact you, your family, your friends? How did it impact the country or the world, from your point of view?
Check out websites online that describe memory exercises for this purpose. Here are a few good ones that I’ve found to help with the process:
How I Dug Deeper
Once I had thousands of memory notes captured, I started to dig deeper. I looked through all of the pictures I could find from my childhood. Instead of looking at the picture, I looked into it. Peer into the background and see what’s there. Scan it into the computer and enlarge it for more detail, if you can. Aside from who is in the picture and maybe where and when it was taken, most photos have a hidden story.
Look deeper into the pictures you have. Do you see those old green curtains in the background? Do you remember the time you tried swinging from them and the whole rig came crashing down in the living room? How about the kitchen table and chairs. Did you draw under that table without Mom knowing it? Look at that old gold colored couch your parents bought. When did they buy it? When did they sell it? What other pictures were hanging in the hallway, and why were they important? Ask questions about every single object in the photograph that you can decipher.
Don’t do this just with pictures of yourself or your own house, either. Do this with photos of other places and people. Every little thing can jog your memory. It might be a picture of your neighbor in the front yard, but in the background it shows your Grandma was visiting from out of state because her car was in your driveway. Why was she there? Was she visiting for a wedding, a graduation, a funeral? You never know what you will find in the background of your pictures.
Try this little exercise on for size. Attempt to list every place you have lived, with the full address. Can’t do it? Look at old letters and return addresses. Check online for public directory listings of your old places to see if you can complete the list. Another great exercise would be to list all of the schools you went to and their addresses, or all of the cars you have owned in your lifetime. What about all of the jobs you have held? When did you work there? Why did you leave?
Another great digging resource are your friends and family (until they get tired of your questions, anyway). If there’s something you remember vaguely but maybe did in combination with another person, ask them about the memory of it. For example, I remember my Mom took me horseback riding when I was young. When I asked her about the experience, she was able to tell me the date and who went with us, where we went, why we were there, and how that day ended up. It was much more than I expected, and she was happy to relive the memory and tell me more about that day she took me horseback riding. I am very lucky it that I still have my Mom and Dad to ask crazy questions of, and they are still answering me. If you can’t do that, try calling upon other family members or friends who might be able to help.
How I Started Writing
Starting the actual writing can seem very daunting. If you’ve come this far in the process, this should actually be the easy part! Just do it. Just start writing. Open up a word processor and give it a shot.
With a majority of my memories captured and organized, I began to write my autobiography. (Nine months later, I’m still not quite done yet.) I sorted my Excel spreadsheets by date, and tackled them on one memory topic at a time. I tried to stick to a general outline such as discussing my birthday, holidays, school, vacations, events and specific details I remembered from that year. I tried to touch on each of these topics in every chapter, adding other things as I saw fit. Each year has it’s own chapter in my book, but you are free to organize and write about the topics in any way you please. After all, it’s your book!
I don’t consider any chapter completed at any time. If I remember something new that I forgot to write about, I simply go back to that part of the book and integrate it. Don’t worry too much about editing at this stage. You can always edit and move things around later. The most important part of this process is capturing the details in as organized a way as you possibly can.
How I Keep Digging
Every day, I still remember something that I thought I had forgotten. For these memories, I keep a note file on my phone, but you can use your computer or even a small notebook that you carry with you. I was watching a commercial last night on television for Celebrity Ghost Stories, and suddenly recalled the time my friends and I lit candles in her basement and used a Ouija board. I made a quick note on my list and then can elaborate on it later.
Another way to capture little stories on the go is to email them to yourself. If you’re a techie like me, sending yourself an email is probably a normal occurrence. If you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or for your kid’s karate class to finish, grab your notebook and jot down any memory you want to write about.
Remember to elaborate on the facts. Memories are more than just who, what, when, where and why. Instead of simply writing that my Mom liked to make peanut brittle, talk about the activities surrounding it. The peanut brittle made the house smell like candy for days, and Mom used to break it apart and pack it in coffee cans, wrapped in Christmas paper and give them away as gifts. Include Mom’s recipe for Peanut Brittle if you have it. And about that time Dad broke his leg – what was he doing when it happened? How did he react to it? What was the motorcycle he was riding when it happened? Where did he get it? Whatever happened to it years later?
Organizing in the Age of Technology
Surprisingly for me, I found the earlier part of my childhood to be a breeze compared to attempting to capture life after the year 2000. The reason? Technology! My favorite thing has become my worst nightmare in terms of collecting and documenting my activities. There are tens of thousands of digital pictures to look at. There’s my online blog which dates back to 2004. There’s Myspace and Facebook and Twitter, each of which has captured tiny tidbits of my daily life for the past several years.
This is where I am currently stuck in the writing of my life story. I have begun capturing and sorting memory topics for this time period just like I had done for my years before technology took over. Some of the topics include technology itself, like when I got my first cell phone and when I joined Facebook and Twitter. I have written at length about how my Motorola Droid has changed my life, providing access to email on the go and integration with social networking applications. Capturing general observations about current events and activities today will make it a lot easier to remember them tomorrow!
Writing an autobiography is not simple, and it’s never really “done.” However, it is one of most rewarding and enriching things I have experienced so far in my life. I’m almost 300 pages into my book, and I’m still remembering “new” memories every day.
I believe if you want to write your life story, you can do it. It just takes time, patience, and a lot of love and emotion. You can do it! If you have any questions for me about the process, leave a comment below or email me. I would love to help if it will encourage you to capture your own memories!
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