Memoir & Autobiography Writing

Writing Your Own History

The value in writing down your own history.

By Barbara Abercrombie | Updated 9/8/20

Writing your own history is a way to make sense of your journey through this world. And finding a way to be heard, expressing what you think and feel, and at the same time bringing order and meaning to your life — isn't this why we all yearn to be creative?

There are lots of ways to write your own history. You can buy a notebook and simply start writing down memories. Or you could exchange regular e-mails with a friend who also wants to write. (Setting up a deadline with the friend for an e-mail every week would motivate you to keep going.) If you have a journal you could add a moment you remember from the past to each current entry, some connection to what you're going through now. Whether you use a notebook, e-mail, or a journal, try writing lists if you get stuck. Favorite movies, music, TV shows, books, places you've visited — lists are an easy way to slip into writing.

One of the best pieces of family history I've ever read was a series of letters written by a student of mine to his grandson. The first letter was written the week before Miles was born and my student wove family history into it, imaging what all the family ancestors would say or teach Miles. When he read it aloud in class everyone was in tears. Another student wrote a letter to his goddaughter when she graduated from college — his hopes for her, and his advice.

If you have a published book in mind you might try writing a memoir. A memoir is about just one period in your life. A dicey childhood, a lost job, the love of your life disappearing, or going through any kind of life changing experience can be material for one. If your story is unique, yet others can relate to it, and if it's well written, you may possibly get it published.

On the other hand, unless you're a celebrity or a mass murderer, your autobiography will be a hard sell. An autobiography, unlike a memoir, chronicles your whole life from birth up until the moment you're writing, and most likely you will not get a major publisher for it. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't write it and publish it yourself. With on-line publishers to help you, it's an easy process and fairly reasonable.

However you want to avoid publishers who pretend to "accept" your manuscript and say glowing things about it, promising you bookstore appearances, newspaper reviews and then charge you a small fortune to publish. Vanity presses will accept anything and unless your mother owns the bookstore and the newspaper, your book will sink out of sight.

But self-publishing with companies like Xlibris, IUniverse, BookOne, etc. is strictly a business deal. You pay them x and they print x number of pages for you, and to do anything else — publicity kits, etc. — there's a fee list. If you're yearning to get your autobiography into print, my advice is to self-publish and then you can do local marketing on your own. Or simply hand it out to family and close friends who will treasure it.

And there's another value to writing your own history — you learn and you grow from it. Writing helps us pay attention and to become more generous and grateful. As Maureen Murdock says in her wonderful book on writing memoir, Unreliable Truth, "The way we tell our story is the way we begin to live our life."

Next: Keeping a Journal to Form a Writing Habit

©2006 Barbara Abercrombie. All rights reserved.