Research Tips on Writing About Your Life

Have you tried to transfer your life story or your personal experiences to the page? Often that process is not as simple as it might seem. To ease the task, freshen your point of view, or awaken a memory. Memoirs and personal essays can always benefit from focused, detailed research, but research needn”t be the tedious, musty chore you recall from expository writing classes. Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories, offers help:

  1. Talk with people you know. The advantage to writing about your life is that you have the cast of characters, your family and friends, at your disposal. If your memory doesn”t serve you, or you never heard the full story of the skeleton in grandpa”s broom closet, try talking to the people who would know. It”s an easy way to begin giving your writing a solid foundation without formal research.
  2. Travel. As Roorbach says, almost any essay could benefit from a trip somewhere. Travel to interview someone. Revisit the neighborhood you”re describing from childhood. First-hand experience often beats abstract research for details and imagery.
  3. Name That Thing. Vague references hurt your writing. Find uses of recently, and references to generic objects and anonymous people, then get specific. When did it happen? What year and model was that car? Uncover the name of your mysterious neighbor. This sounds elementary, but even expert writers catch themselves glossing over the details.
  4. Let the government help you with public and private records. Look at your city and county government offices for property records, court records, probate records and police records. For restricted federal files, consider the Freedom of Information Act. For private records, uncover the information collections of cooperative people you know. Pictures, journals, scrapbooks, letters. Your more longwinded relatives will be eager to share this information with you.

As you track down these sources, you”ll likely find yourself remembering more details about a place or situation than when you started. As Roorbach points out: “Even the smallest exactitude can lead to greater revelation.” The seeds for topic ideas, anecdotes, metaphors and writing structure often are in your “research” as well.

Read more about Writing Life Stories.

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