Your life story matters, and it's worth recording, but if you’re like most people, you might find the potential magnitude of the task daunting. The key to success, I have found, is to make the undertaking as easy and straightforward as possible. Here are a few suggestions for how to do just that.
1. Start with a timeline. Just as the building of a house begins with a solid framework, so must a life story. To create the framework for your personal history, take time to record every important date you can think of from your life including, among other things, your parents’ birthdates and marriage date as well as your birthdate, your siblings’ birthdates, the year you started school, your baptismal date, graduation dates, mission dates, employment dates, marriage date, your children’s birthdates, and so on. To better convey the context of your life, consider including the dates of important historical events that have occurred during your lifetime. As additional events and dates come to mind, expand your timeline. Your personalized timeline alone will do much to convey your life story.
2. Focus on writing imperfect but heartfelt short stories. If it doesn’t work for you, and be assured, it doesn’t work for most of us, let go of the notion that you have to write about your life from start to finish in chronological order. Remember, you already have your timeline to show what happened when. So instead, take time to brainstorm a list of your memorable life experiences not already mentioned in your timeline. Then using your timeline and your brainstormed list, pick just one small story from anywhere within your life story and start writing. Keep in mind that your writing doesn’t have to be perfect. It is far better to write an imperfect personal history that gives people a feel for the breadth and depth of your life than a small but perfectly written portion of your personal history that tells people very little about you at all. If you write just one short story a week, or even every other week, before you know it, you’ll have written dozens of stories that together will tell the ever-growing story of your life.
3. Identify who’s who in your life. To better understand who a person is, it helps to understand who the people are around them. Devote a section of your personal history to naming and writing about all the major characters in your life. Be sure to include family and close friends but also favorite teachers, mentors and anyone else who might warrant a mention as you create your personal history. Consider writing a brief biography about each of them, focusing on what about them and their life has made a difference in your life.
4. List your life. One of the easiest and fastest ways to tell others who you are is to make lists about various aspects of your life. You might want to include lists of your pets, your hobbies, places you’ve lived (including the addresses), trips you’ve taken, what you’re thankful for, toys you played with as a child, games you love, jokes that make you laugh, automobiles you’ve owned, sports you’ve played and so on. Be sure to include lists of your favorite things such as your favorite foods, recipes, books, songs, movies, quotes, general conference talks and so on. As time permits, enrich the list portion of your personal history by including such things as copies of your favorite recipes or a few lines about your pets.
5. Gather what’s already written. Chances are you’ve already written more of your personal history than you realize. Take some time to sort through your papers and computer files to locate and set aside church talks and school papers you’ve written over the years. Find any copies of letters (whether in the form of emails or print letters) you’ve written to others. And become more conscious of letting letters do double duty for you as something you write to others but also something that serves as a part of your personal history.
6. Enlist the help of others. Talk with friends and family members about things they might remember better about your past than you do. In my case, my sisters seem to recall our childhood in more detail than I do. Often, once they start talking about a particular experience, the memories flood back, and I try to capture in writing what they’ve shared before the memory slips back into the fog. Think about asking family and friends to write down some of their memories of your shared past. Such a request could serve as the perfect birthday gift as they didn’t have to spend any money, and you receive something that is invaluable to you and your posterity.
7. Carry a small notebook or index cards with you wherever you go to capture thoughts about your personal history as they come to you. Sometimes, you might use your notebook or index cards to make a quick note about a detail from your past, and other times, when you find yourself with some unexpected time on your hands, say, in a doctor’s waiting room, or while waiting to pick up the carpool, you may want to use the time to detail a specific story from your past. You’ll be surprised how much progress you can make by carrying pen and paper with you and taking advantage of unexpected moments.
8. Schedule the time. This step alone is the key to writing your personal history. How about 90 minutes every Sunday or a couple of hours two or three times a month? You decide what works best for you, and then make your commitment and keep it. Remember, writing your life story now, bit by bit, is far better than possibly never writing it at all. After all, your story matters, and when you take the time to write it down, you’ll see for yourself just how true that is.
Debra Sansing Woods is the author of "Mothering with Spiritual Power: Book of Mormon Inspirations for Raising a Righteous Family."