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How to Write Your Life

Every life has drama: joy, loss, surprise, knowledge, conflict, wisdom — the stuff of a memoir. Writing yours can be a treasured gift to your children and grandchildren because it tells them something eloquent about who you are and who they are.

Every life has drama: joy, loss, surprise, knowledge, conflict, wisdom — the stuff of a memoir. Writing yours can be a treasured gift to your children and grandchildren because it tells them something eloquent about who you are and who they are. It can also be a gift to yourself by providing the motivation to look back on your life with wisdom and experience, discovering yourself anew.

Start simple. Write about a trip you took, your first date or a teacher who changed your life. Other topics: your wedding or your divorce, the birth of a child, an illness, your grandmother, a friendship and a falling out. What you choose can be sad or funny, short or long. The only rule is that you choose a theme from your life and your heart. And that you start writing.

This guest post is by Babette Hughes. Hughes’s new book, The Secret of Happiness, is a compilation of her popular Huffington Post contributions. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Hughes is a bootlegger's daughter whose father and uncle were murdered by the Mafia. Ms. Hughes is the co-author of Why College Students Fail and author of the memoir, Lost And Found. Her published columns, articles and book reviews can be found in the Saturday Review, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland Magazine and the Cleveland Press. Babette and her husband are parents and stepparents to eight children and now reside in Austin, Texas. 

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Babette Hughes book cover

As long as you’re not hurting anyone who is still alive, reveal family secrets. It is what your children and grandchildren want to know, it will bring your story to life and it can be an important cathartic experience for you.

And, let me encourage you: You remember more than you think you do. It’s all there in the recesses of your mind, and will return through the very process of writing. Writing is the trigger you use to release your memory. Don’t worry about precise names, places, facts and dates. It is the memory of your feeling and the incidents you have chosen to write about that can be truer, more significant, and more interesting than chronological facts (they can always be checked or reconstructed later).

Keep a notebook in your car, in your handbag, in your pocket and/or on your nightstand to record random memories and thoughts. It is important, because these flashes of memory or ideas can otherwise drift through your mind and vanish like a dream. Catch them and write them down.

Then set aside time during the day or evening to write. Write and write with no judgement about the results. Write and write freely and recklessly. Write and write even if you hate what you’ve come up with. Most professionals keep only about ten percent of what they produce, but they understand that writing the discarded ninety percent is how they will get to the buried memory, the treasure, the sentence or paragraph or passage that says what is in their heart and mind. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens — like making a hole in one, hitting a grand slam, winning the lottery. It’s what keeps writers writing.

[The Big Lie of Age and Writing]

Think about your life as a play, with dialogue, and a cast of characters, and a setting. Events in your life have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Say you’re writing about your honeymoon trip to a resort. The two of you are having dinner in the dining room. A gentleman in a tuxedo is playing “Let’s Do It” on the piano. You describe the blue, fringed draperies on the windows. The Dover sole, wild rice and mushrooms on your plate. The mauve chiffon dress you are wearing from your trousseau. The aromas of your husband’s steak, your perfume, the red wine in your glass.

You notice a strange-looking man at the next table. He has a pock-marked face, icy blue eyes and white hair. He needs a shave. He is dining with a beautiful young woman in red lace. He is shouting and slamming his fist on the table as the beautiful young woman weeps.

Your new husband becomes so distressed that he cannot eat and insists on checking out of the hotel immediately and going home. Your marriage lasts only three more months. Your children never knew you had been married before. This is a scene.

What you write about doesn’t have to be that dramatic to be interesting, but you do want to lay the words on the page with as much detail as you can so that your readers can relive the scene that you are capturing.

Although someone else in your family may have experienced the same event or person in your story entirely differently, this is your memory, your truth and your experience. Perceptions are complicated and personal and singular, and the more you respect your own unique insight, the more fun you’ll have writing and the more your story will come to life on the page.

The writer and teacher, Brenda Ueland, says that you must write from your true self and not from the self you — or others — think you should. No individual is exactly like any other individual. No two identical persons have ever existed — including twins. Therefore, if you tell the truth and speak from your true self, you cannot help but have something important, unique and interesting to say that will be treasured for generations to come.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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