Always live your life with your biography in mind. — Marisha Pessl
This week I explore the why and how behind writing your own memoir or biography. It’s not as big an endeavour as you might think. So far I’ve written 17,000 words with a simple daily habit of writing 5 minutes a day. I’m not yet finished, and it’s certainly not something I’d ever edit and publish, but it has been an enjoyable process.
But before we get to the practicalities let’s first explore why…
🖋️ Biography rationale
I’ve wanted to write a book for a long time, but I have such a range of interests and combined with a short attention span I struggle to know a) where to start and b) if I did start I don't think I’d finish because something else would come along that’s more interesting.
I do like to write though because it helps make sense of my thoughts and feeling. And I do like the idea of having something tangible my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren can read that I’ve written.
To deal with the problem of where to start, I decided to start with my own story. In this way I don’t need much creativity, I’m writing about my history. That sounds easy. And of course my past touches on all my hobbies, interests, fads, along the way but without having to dive deep on any one topic.
The other thing that I find compelling about writing my biography is that it is my life story that’s literally as well as figuratively not finished being written. I still have some runway left. By writing where I’ve come to date it also allows me to imagine what happens next. And I have more say over home my story ends than I realise. I’m the author of my own movie. So maybe I can hike the Pacific Crest Trail one day… 😃
There is also a very real sense that I’m running out of time. Of course none of us know how long we’ve got and each day of existence is a veritable miracle. But what if I keeled over tomorrow? What would I leave for my wife and kids? How would they remember me? Do they really know me? (Or the deeper philosophical question: do I really know myself?)
Mark Twain reminds us that a biography is just the “clothes and buttons of the man” - our actions each and say that go unwritten are what really make us who we are.
What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, not those of other things, are his history. These are his life, and they are not written. Everyday would make a whole book of 80,000 words -- 365 books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man -- the biography of the man himself cannot be written. — Mark Twain
So we’ve covered my rationale for writing a memoir. It’s partly for the legacy, the family record. But it’s also for helping me live my life now. Writing is a direct way of pondering life, the self-awareness that comes from putting thoughts and actions to paper. It’s easier to look at objectively when it’s articulated on the page, even though your history is the same whether you write it down or not.
📝 Biography prompts
How to start then? It’s still seems like a big endeavour to write a memoir. Well, like the cliché of eating an elephant, it’s one bite at a time. If you start with a list of prompts, writing your memoir instead becomes the daily habit of answering one prompt a day.
I’ve been working through a number of memoir prompts I've found online but the best is the list by StoryCorps. Check it out: https://storycorps.org/participate/great-questions/
And for a taste, how about some of these great questions:
- How would you like to be remembered?
- If you could talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
- What are your dreams for your children?
- How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
- What have you learned from life? The most important things?
They certainly get the mental juices flowing!
🙋♂️ Recommend a great biography
I like to read, and find it fascinating to read about the lives of others. So, if you’ve read a truly great biography then please let me know. Either reply to the newsletter email or write a comment on the Facebook page to share.
It’s a pleasure writing to you. Have a great week. 😊
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