Writing Life Story Essay

These quick, one-time-only exercises can teach us about ourselves and what we want—and how we can tell our story. The bonus? You might just end up with a book...

By Leigh Newman

What to write: Try to summarize your life in two or three sentences. Take your time. Think about your past. "But mostly think about who you are today and how you got that way," says Roberta Temes, PhD, psychologist and author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days. "Maybe you want to focus on a certain relationship, maybe a certain theme...or maybe a feeling that has persisted for years."

Consider these examples before putting pen to paper:

Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood.

Love my life, love my dog, love my kids. No room for a guy.

Finally sober. Exhausting journey. Many regrets.

Beautiful, close family. And then the accident.

Fears and phobias finally overcome, thanks to husband. Still not sure if I deserve him.

Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it's a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.

What to write: Choose one or more of the sentences below and write a page or two that begins with that particular sentence. Don't worry about bringing up material that you are afraid might be too painful to explore, says Temes. "Please don't bother with grammar or spelling or punctuation issues. "Just write for yourself and for your clarity of mind."

Sentence 1: I was just a kid, but...

Sentence 2: I tried my best and...

Sentence 3: In that moment everything changed.

Sentence 4: It was shocking to find out that...

Sentence 5: It was the proudest day of my life. I couldn't stop smiling when...

Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let's say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, "I was just a kid but..." or "I tried my best but..." Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don't have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. "Don't think and write," says Temes. "Just write."

What to write: Take a minute to think about the previous two exercises. Then, please finish this sentence; I'd like to really understand everything that led me to _______________.

Here are some examples (it's okay to add an additional sentence or two):

I'd like to really understand everything that led me to marry Blake. He was so wrong for me and I don't want to make another mistake.

I'd like to really understand everything that led me to choose architecture as my life's work. Did it have to do with the way we lived when I was growing up?

I'd like to really understand everything that led me to become such a good mom, considering I had no role model.

I'd like to really understand everything that led me to never get along with my step-mother. Now that she's gone I realize what a good person she was and how she tried to have a relationship with me.

Why it helps: There's no need to do the actual examination and investigation now. Instead, just focus on identifying what it is you might delve into someday—in a memoir or in the pages of a journal or just in your mind. What truth is important for you to get at? You have a structure (your three sentences), you have a crucial event (that may have caused or contributed to that life story) and now you have a purpose—a reason for writing that will let you learn, enjoy and even be surprised by the story you've been waiting to tell yourself and—maybe, just maybe, the world, as well.

Roberta Temes, PhD, is the author of
How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days, which includes other exercises like these.

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Writing Life Stories, Tenth Anniversary Edition
How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature
By Bill Roorbach, with Kristen Keckler, PhD
Writer’s Digest Books, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-58297-527-6
$16.99 paperback, 304 pages

Read an excerpt from chapter two: "Challenging the Limits of Memory."

Whether you’re creating a memoir or a personal essay, writing about your own life can be a daunting task: How much do you remember? What’s important to include in your story? What about truth and artistic license? How do you even get started mining a life’s worth of memory?

From drawing a map of a remembered neighborhood to writing from old photographs to composing open letters that reveal the power of your own voice, award-winning author and teacher Bill Roorbach offers innovative techniques that will trigger ideas for all writers of creative nonfiction. With humor and candor, this completely revised and updated second edition of Writing Life Stories—which includes dozens of new lessons and exercises—will teach you to see your life more clearly and show you why real stories are often the most compelling ones.

Praise for Writing Life Stories

Writing Life Stories is an inspiring way to begin writing a memoir. Roorbach is a fine author whose enthusiasm is infectious.”
—Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine

“Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories is brimming with valuable suggestions, evocative assignments, insights into the writing process, and shrewd common sense. I can’t wait to try some of his ideas in the classroom and on myself. This writing guide delivers the goods.”
—Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay

About the Authors

Bill Roorbach writes fiction and nonfiction, and is the author of numerous books, including a novel, The Smallest Color, and a book of stories, Big Bend, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The title story, “Big Bend,” won an O. Henry Prize as well.  Temple Stream: a Rural Odyssey, his most recent book, won the 2006 Maine Book Award in nonfiction and received a Furthermore Grant from the Kaplan Foundation. Other books are Into Woods (essays); Summers with Juliet (memoir); A Place on Water (essays, with Robert Kimber and Wesley McNair), A Healing Touch (essays, with Gerry Boyle, Wesley McNair, Richard Russo, Susan Sterling, and Monica Wood). Bill is also the editor of the Oxford anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. His short work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York, The New York Times Magazine, and many others. He has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Ohio State, and Colby College, and currently holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He lives in Farmington, Maine, and is at work on a novel.  For more information, updated biography, signed copies of books, news about readings and workshops, and to send queries and comments directly to the author, go to www.billroorbach.com.

To read an interview with Bill, click here.

Kristen Keckler is a teacher, writer, and editor whose PhD (University of North Texas) is in the field of creative nonfiction. She writes in all genres—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—and her work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Ecotone, The Sonora Review, The Dallas Morning News, Cold-Drill, Palo Alto Review, and Concho River Review. She was editor-in-chief of North Texas Review an editor of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, a national book contest co-sponsored by the UNT Press. On the way she’s worked as a clown, a cook, a librarian, and a group home counselor. She’s just completing a memoir about life and work called What Do You Do?

Table of Contents for Writing Life Stories, 10th Anniv. Ed.

1.    Getting Started
2.    Memory
3.    Scenemaking
4.    Big Ideas
5.    Characters and Character
6.    Stage Presence
7.    Finding the Facts
8.    Metaphor and Meaning
9.    Saying It Right
10.    Building a Building
11.    Getting Published

Appendix A: “Into Woods” by Bill Roorbach
Appendix B: “The Olive Jar” by Kristen Keckler
Appendix C: “On Apprenticeship” by Bill Roorbach
Appendix D: Suggested Readings in Creative Nonfiction

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