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Write Your Own Life Story - Part 1

What! Me an Ancestor?

One minute you're in Grandma's kitchen eating cookies, and the next--you're the grandma making cookies. Don't look now, but you're an ancestor! Time to write the story of your life, don't you think?

" No one listens to me" you say. Well, maybe not that old story with whiskers your family has memorized down to your every gesture, but isn't there more to your life than a few anecdotes, wonderful as they may be? When you're not there to tell your family, who will know about your life?

If you can write a life story which can be easily read and which proceeds in an interesting manner, the chances are your family will listen now....and read it, too.

Don't you wish you had asked more questions of your parents and grandparents? Of course. Can you ask those people today? Probably not.

A family can "know" one another for lifetimes, and yet not know many things about one another. Maybe only you can fill in the blanks now.

The house you grew up in, your brush with death or the famous person you met, your thoughts and feelings on many things--there are so many things you can tell your loved ones in a well-planned journal.

Are you half-way convinced but wonder WHEN to start, and HOW? The WHEN is right now when you finish reading this first of 3 installments. The HOW begins now.

You may write a mean grocery list, but a bit more is needed here. Remember those kids who got straight A's in Composition? The teachers gave them gold stars and pinned their work to cork boards. You, on the other hand, received less than sterling grades for your smeared, crossed-over, rambling assignment. You remember that SO well, and you are scared to write now, aren't you?

Today, YOU are the "expert" on your life story. You know what you've lived, how you've thought, the things you are proud of, the things you wish you had done differently, but still you feel insecure about putting your thoughts in writing.

Getting started is always the hard part. Instead of chewing on pencil erasers, we can now twiddle our fingers on keyboards waiting for the right word to come into our heads.

Think of a book you read that you literally couldn't put down. Chances are the author, by using several writing techniques, brought you "into" the story so that you could see the people and places in your mind. Those who remember the old radio shows know how you can lose yourself in a plot. The story could be "seen" just by looking at the brown woven front of the old RCA.

These are techniques writers employ to get you involved in the story, and which you, as writer of your own life story, can employ as well. They may seem awkward to use at first, but after a while your personal "voice" will take over. Yes, it will.


If you are reading this online, you are computer savvy, so the best way to write your story is sitting at your Mac or PC. Use your Notepad feature to jot down ideas as you go or to refer to dates you may have put down there to jog your memory. On the computer it is easy to make corrections and edit. Just be sure that your "editing" isn't taking away from your story. If you begin to think "Oh, I'd better not put that in" or "Maybe that shouldn't be there" you just may be letting that little editor sitting on your shoulder dictate how you will write. Don't let worry about the "right" kind of life story prevent yours from being the real you.

You may feel more comfortable using a yellow legal pad and pencil and putting in on the computer when you have sorted your thoughts out better. Whatever works for you is fine.

When we are writing, it is easy to go on and on, forgetting that sentences and paragraphs are "markers" for a reader. Keep only three sentences to a paragraph, and make the paragraph all one thought.

Think of a paragraph as a written pause, just as in conversation you would pause and change the subject or continue after resting.

The "5 W's"

One way to be sure every fact necessary is covered when you are writing is to employ the "5W's" used by journalists: Who, What, Where, When, and Why (and sometimes How)

Let's try using that formula on a paragraph. Let's start with your BIRTH: I was named_____(WHO) after my father and grandfather (WHY) and was born (WHAT) in______(WHERE) on ________(WHEN)

See? 5 W's in one sentence! Sometimes the Why and How are not needed in a journalistic story, but in a personal history, your descendants may be very interested in why you did something, or how you did something.

You can use this method over and over as you write your life story, because it organizes the most important things about what you are writing: the facts. But facts can be dull and dry without some "color" and we'll talk about that next time.

Your Assignment

Until next time, you can try this assignment as the first step in writing your life story. It is the DEDICATION. Why are you writing this personal history? By whom will it be read? Your dedication needn't be long, but it should tell the "why" of the pages that will follow. Length is not important, but say what is in your heart and what you hope it will mean to others. Go to it!

Best Wishes from Amy Kenneley

Amy Kenneley uses her writing background in her own family history research. Her other interests are poetry, volunteer work, and community projects.

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