Tips, guidelines and principles: How to write a personal history your posterity can't put down
“No one is perfect. We’ve all had issues along the way that we’re not proud of, but I don’t need to talk about it all because hopefully I learned enough from them. You just get better,” Elder Zwick said. “But occasionally, it’s OK to open your heart a little and share something if you feel it might benefit someone.”
For help on deciding what is appropriate and what isn’t, Elder Zwick pointed out two scriptures in the Book of Mormon.
Alma 37:8 states, “And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.”
In 3 Nephi 27:23, it reads: “Write the things which ye have seen and heard, save it be those which are forbidden.”
In addition to sharing stories with their family, the Zwicks enjoyed writing the book together because it was an activity that strengthened their marriage. Elder Zwick encouraged couples to work together in writing their personal histories because it “bonds and enriches a marriage.”
“There was a synergy that went beyond the value of the lessons taught or learned in the book,” he said. “The book meant something to our kids, but it also meant something to our relationship.”
Lee Nelson has published nearly 20 books, including the “Storm Testament” series. In 2011, Nelson published “Hoofbeats,” his autobiography. In the book’s prologue, Nelson described his experience of being called to teach a personal history writing class in his Mapleton, Utah, LDS ward.
The motivation for writing his own personal history stemmed from a thought that scared him — what if he died without writing his history and one of his sisters attempted to write it?
“Both of the sisters who might attempt such a project are intelligent, college-educated adults. Having known me all my life, either one would be able to produce a beautiful and perhaps lengthy piece of work. And while they were doing it, I would be turning in my grave,” Nelson wrote. “No matter how good and noble the intent might be, they would get it wrong. They could not help but get it wrong. They would not be able to tell my story the way I remember it, nor in the way I would want it told — not even close.”
Continuing his thought, Nelson wrote: “How many departed souls are regretting that they didn’t write something down before it was too late? How frustrated are they that the too-brief stories of their lives, often written by people who didn’t know them, miss the mark by such a great distance?”
As he wrote his own story, his life made more sense.
“I began to see pattern and purpose instead of accidents and dead ends,” Nelson wrote. “As I wrote about regrets and mistakes I began to see some of these events as wonderful learning opportunities preparing me for future events.”
Writing a personal history is not like writing an algebra textbook, he wrote, it is nothing more, or less, than telling stories of your life. Some are short and funny and some are longer and more serious. Sometimes you explain at the end of a story what you learned, sometimes you don’t, he wrote.
“It’s easier than you think,” Nelson wrote. “I tell my classes that writing a personal history is the easiest kind of writing a person can do, because you have already done the research by living your life. When you start writing, the hardest part is already behind you.”
With a little coaching, anyone can learn to write his or her story, Nelson wrote.
1. Write like you talk. Nelson suggests you write the story as if you were telling it to a neighbor over the backyard fence.
2. Pretend your audience consists of seventh graders. Your writing will be easier to understand if you don’t use big words that few people understand, Nelson said.
3. Keep in mind that different people remember different facts. If a relative doesn’t agree with the way you tell a story, then they should write their own version of the story and leave you alone, Nelson wrote.
4. It is wrong to fictionalize or make stuff up.
“Don’t do it,” Nelson wrote. “There will always be some factual mistakes in writing from memory, but you’d better be honest about what happened, how you felt and what you think you learned.”
5. Once you have composed 50-100 stories, you will have a feel for which ones must stay, which ones might be marginal, and which ones deserve the firing squad. Instead of including everything, good or bad, the personal history writer is selective and only includes the best stories, Nelson wrote.
6. Finally, Nelson shared the key secret to writing a personal history.
“There is no secret,” Nelson wrote, “It’s not hard, but it does take time and attention, usually over several years. It might go faster if I do it for you, but it might be better if you do it yourself. After all, you are the one who did all the research.
“The elements in great stories, the stories that never die, are the same elements we see in our own lives. The great stories parallel the lives of human beings. All of us are reluctant heroes or heroines engaged in life’s journey.”
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