Have you ever thought of writing your life story? One Italian writer, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, thought that it should be a duty. Our memories, he said, could be of inestimable value in two or three generations’ time, and could even prevent future wars, because of the deep insights they bring into human experience. For most of us, it may be enough to set down our story for family and friends, but it’s reassuring to think that our lives play a part in the bigger picture, and that they deserve recording. While I was still a student, I went into the back streets of Birmingham with Charles Parker, a notable BBC radio producer of the day, to help record an interview with a very old lady, whose family had been Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century. I listened enthralled as she described growing up in the slums, and sang ancient, magical folk songs from another era. I became an immediate convert to Charles’s philosophy that all voices are worth hearing, and all life stories worth telling.
In my own books over the years, I have included extracts from interviews that people gave me, about their experiences of life and love, including recollections about World War One – memories which can never again be heard at first hand. And in recent years I’ve focussed on helping others to write their own life stories. It’s become a popular project, and one that often just needs a nudge, some encouragement and guidance as to how to go about it.
‘My mother is writing her life story, but it’s been such a miserable one that I’m not sure it’s worth it. Like when she got captured by pirates in China.’ What? Yes, this one startled me during a chat at the summer school where I was a tutor. It was true, though, and had happened when the lady in question was being brought up by missionary parents in the Far East. Often people deny at first that their lives have been ‘interesting’ – but who wouldn’t want to read about that? Even if we haven’t had quite such a dramatic time, everyone has a story to tell. ‘Well, I did once try sheep farming in Australia….’ ‘I suppose being bombed out in the blitz is worth telling the grandchildren.’ These are typical comments that I hear as individuals gradually overcome their initial reluctance to write about themselves. The ‘ordinary’ life story is rich in experience, and with a little thought and care can be written in a way that is fascinating for others to read.
Writing your life story need not be something you come to later in life. In fact, life stories in this sense were originally created for children who had been displaced from their birth families. Professionals put together a ‘Life Story Book’ for such children, recording their origins to give them more confidence in their identity. You can write your life story at any stage of your life – to celebrate the birth of a baby, as a reminder of where you’ve got to, or to come to terms with events that you’ve experienced. Sadly, for some, it is a chance to record their life before it’s too late, when threatened by a terminal illness. If we are lucky enough to live on, then we can always do an update later. Don’t wait till the story is over, or it will be too late!
It helps to have an ‘audience’ in mind for your story. This is likely to be members of your family, or even one particular individual who’s been badgering you to record your experiences. These days, it’s quite often children who have been assigned a school history project to uncover their grandparents’ memories! It could also be for a friend, for a local history project, or even – why not? – just for yourself. Having a primary person or readership in mind can be the inspiration to get started and indeed to keep motivated along the way
The next question is how to write it. Mostly, our own life stories are not the material of commercial publication, and will be for limited circulation. But this is also liberating, since it means we have complete freedom over how to present the story and how long or short it should be. And it doesn’t have to be a book at all – it can be a photo journal, a scrapbook, a short narrative or a popular option known as ‘the ring binder’ method. For this, you simply slot pages into a binder as and when you wish – memoirs, memories, mementos and so on.
Ready to start? Top tip is to prepare a chronology for your life, noting down all the major events, phases, family happenings and places you’ve lived in. This provides a backbone, and is tremendously useful to refer to as you go along.
And once you get going, you will usually find that more and more memories surface, which are distilled into gold as you spin them into your story. Whoever you write your life story for, it is likely to bring you tremendous personal satisfaction, and a sense of wonder at the nature of life itself.
Cherry Gilchrist is a life story tutor and consultant, and has worked with hospice patients, at summer schools, classes and on cruise ships. Her book Your Life, Your Story: Writing your Life Story for Family and Friends is a practical and creative guide to setting down your personal narrative.
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