We all have a story to tell. Our lives are filled with meaning – and we long to make sense of it. Sometimes this is the incentive we need to sit down and actually start telling that story. I want to write my memoir. I want my children and grandchildren to know about me. They live too far away and this might be the only way I can truly reach out.
So the writer sits – and ponders. Where do I start? Do I begin at the beginning? I was born on April… That’s where the boring begins and never ends. We live in chronological time but our life experiences overlap. Some set the tone for future success. Others come back to bite us. There is no true order to a life well lived.
So how does a writer start a life story? Perhaps the most effective way is to begin with a life turning point, a fork in the road experience. We have hundreds of these: anything from the sublime (I fell in love at the age of sixteen and never looked back), to the obvious (my first job gave me the sense of independence I had been searching for). Here are a few kick-start examples.
- My first day at school was the day I fell in love with learning.
- My parents separated when I was eight and it took a long time for me to understand that it hadn’t been my fault.
- My first loss was our pet dog Nippy. That was 28 years ago and I still miss him.
- I sang solo at our Grade 5 Christmas concert and the stage bug hit me hard.
- I became seriously ill while in high school and the lessons I learned have stayed with me.
- When I was ten, my father let me visit his office, and that’s when I knew what I’d be doing for the rest of my life.
- My first best friend is still a friend today, 50 years later.
- My first major travel experience happened when I was a teenager. I will never stop travelling until I have to.
- I quit school in Grade 10, got a miserable job, and realized how important education is, so I returned and got my graduation certificate. Then I became a doctor.
- I fell in love as a teenager and suffered through a horrendous break-up, just like most others. Still, it changed me.
While a turning point can take place at any point in life, it’s often easiest to start your writing with one that happened as a child or adolescent. That fork in the road experience may end up affecting your life in surprising ways, and as you write, these may surface in other stories.
Your turning point experiences do not need to be dramatic. To start my own life story, I chose one that was less than sublime, but it did capture an essence of who I was at the time. It was nothing more than me as a three or four year old, standing alone in the middle of railway tracks in an isolated northern Quebec village, and looking out to where the tracks converged on the horizon. It was my first realization that something must exist beyond that point. Otherwise, where did the trains come from? Of course there’s a rest-of-the-story here as well. My parents had no idea about me hanging around the rail lines, and they had even less of an inkling that my friend Harry and I (or is it Harry and me?) were placing rocks on the tracks. They found out when the police came calling. I still remember hiding under the chair the officer was sitting in, and listening to his warning: “If you were older, you would be in jail.” I became a very good boy after that!
The hardest part of writing your life story no longer needs to be getting started. Use the suggestions above to jog your own memory. Choose one turning point experience and write a short 2-3 page story on it. That’s all. You are on your way.