Those who journal regularly do so with a purpose. We keep prayer journals, venting journals, daily diary journals, and gratitude journals.
But what do you do with shelves of handwritten journals from over the years? They contain a wonderful reflection on the stages and experiences of your life. However, those life stories will remain forever mute if you don’t condense and compile them into a memoir book to share with others.
How to start writing your life story
If you have 10, 20, 30 or more journals from over the years, the first thing you want to do is scan them all in. Imagine if a fire or water damage destroyed them. Ask anyone who lived through Hurricane’s Katrina or Sandy, photos, slides, and journals were among the most deeply felt losses.
After the pages are scanned in—we can do this for you; it’s tedious!—take three different colored highlighters and assign one color to each of these topics:
Yellow: Highlight the cheerful stories or experiences that were difficult, but helped develop your character today.
Green: Highlight the venting or any judgment or blame you put on someone else that would be hurtful to the reader.
Blue: Highlight those stories which reflect on important experiences that changed how you think and move in the world. These may include spiritual awakenings, patriotism, wisdom, love, loss, etc.
What to keep as you discover your life stories
As you highlight the copied pages of your journals, you may discover other categories of life story present themselves. Simply use a new color highlighter to call attention to these stories. We’ll sort them all out shortly.
You may discover as you’re highlighting, that themes suddenly arise. A pattern begins to emerge as you move through your writings through the years. Using a mind map method, write down a theme-based word that speaks to you from your journals, in the middle of a blank piece of unlined paper. Highlight it with the appropriate color.
You will likely have 10-20 different mind maps going. As subtopics or random thoughts and ideas occur to you around each theme, don’t judge them, just write the words randomly around the theme in the middle as fast as you can. This is a self-organizing process of creativity. Put your inner critic and English teacher in time out for now.
Once you’re through all the journals and have dozens of mind maps strewn about, go back to the mind maps and see if a pattern or overarching memoir theme begins to present itself. Sometimes it’s a singular event or thought or beliefthat draws attention to a running theme in your life. Other times it’s a pattern of experience that is repeated throughout relationships, jobs, hobbies, etc. On a new piece of paper or your computer, begin to type the major themes and subtopics. They are not necessarily in chronological order. In fact, it’s a better read in the end if your life story book is filled with vignettes—ideal since most journal entries are under 500 words.
Let the story arc develop organically
Play around with the order of the topics and see if a story arc presents itself at this time. It may be that you want to pare down your memoir into a couple of volumes depending on the topics that segregate themselves from other topics. For example, you may begin by thinking you’re starting down a path of family history, career, spiritual growth, or travels and adventures. What speaks to you and any potential readers is often something else altogether such as writing a book on adoption or caregiving, school times, community service, how fun and free life was when you were a youth, or perhaps what floats to the surface is a thread of life experience that weaves a storied career or entrepreneurial ventures.
I urge you not to get locked in to one title or outline until you’ve gone through the whole process. I promise it’s much more fun to allow the story to create itself without our having to control and firmly dictate to an outline.
What not to include in your memoir
There are people and experiences that color our world in a darker shade of memory. These, too, are likely found in your journals. We name names, judge, blame, and vent about a particular person or event.
Here’s how to discern whether you should include any story in your memoir. Every story must honor, encourage, and inspire the writer and any potential reader.
Sometimes, to get to the heart of a story of overcoming, we must mention a family member or friend who wreaked havoc in your life in one way or another. I can help you decide whether to consider inclusion or not. That’s a whole other blog post.
Finish your memoir
Many start, but few finish. It’s pointless to do all this work of identifying themes, topics, and story arcs if you don’t finish it. By now, you may be suffering from the all-to-common burnout on your own story. This is where professional help can get your book published, whether for personal and family distribution or to inspire and excite others by selling it on Amazon.com.
If you get stuck in any part of the above processes, I can help with one-on-one coaching customized to fit your schedule and your budget.
There’s an old African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” I say this to encourage you to finish this important legacy that will teach, inspire, strengthen, and encourage countless others including your children and children’s children who may never meet you. You are creating a lasting legacy of connection and belonging when you finally finish your memoir.
If you’d like some guidance and accountability to finally finish your memoir, please contact us.