There's a lot of advice out there for folks who want to write their personal histories or memoirs. A lot of it is crap. That's why Margot asked Peter Andersen to set the record straight.
"Among his many talents, Pete is a gifted memoir whisperer," she explains. "When he's not creating brand journalism or writing technical documentation, he helps people create tell their own stories through his company, Remarkable Lives. He has a real knack for shepherding these intensely personal projects to fruition." (And email Pete if you'd like some help with your own memoir!)
Yes! You should write your memoir
(even if it never gets published)
You’ve already done the first step in writing a memoir which is to Google “how do I write a memoir”, so you’ve probably already seen a dozen websites that say unless you’re a celebrity nobody wants to read your memoir.
Because while there’s some truth in that statement, it’s the wrong message. Here’s a better message: Your life is a treasure and I hope you start writing your memoir today. Even if it’s not a bestseller, the world needs it.
But, you ask with a sigh, who really wants to read my memoir?
That’s easy – more people than you think, including me. Especially me. Right now I’m just sitting here with my dogs and would love to read your memoir. I’d read it with my dogs. I’d read it to my dogs. We’d love it, and we’d go back and read certain parts twice because that’s how good it will be.
For the moment, forget about publishing. Forget about bestsellers. Forget about the memoir advice website I saw that had the arrogance to say, “Who knows – maybe you DO have an interesting life…”
Of course you have an interesting life – you’re YOU! You are a miracle and we need to hear your story, and you should start writing it today.
5 Reasons to Write a Personal History
Reason #1: It’s fun
Imagine – a whole book about YOU. What could be more self-indulgent than that? After all, to some degree, each of us lives in our own world. And just like the big world, your personal world has its own history, its own heroes and villains, its own quests, even its own geography. I’m willing to bet the landscape of your world has mountains you’ve climbed, rivers you’ve crossed, valleys you’ve been afraid to explore. There are oceans of love and wonder and fear and regret, and you’ve sailed them all – where did you go? Who went with you? The shape of your world is utterly unique – there’s never been another one like it, and there never will be. Why not take a trip around the world – your world – and send us postcards by writing a memoir?
Reason #2: It’s cathartic
All beginning writers are told in a stern voice, “This is writing, not therapy.”
Sure, your finished manuscript has to appeal to someone besides yourself, but you knew that already so don’t fret over it now. Because the truth is, the road to that finished manuscript will have countless opportunities to settle old scores, get your side of the story down once and for all, and revisit painful experiences with the gifts of forgiveness and hard-earned wisdom that only time can provide.
Writing about your life experiences can be cathartic. You’ll get things off your chest, positive and negative and in between. You’ll create a permanent celebration of your triumphs, maybe sort out a few messy situations in a useful way, and even find answers to riddles that have always puzzled you. One of the most rewarding things about writing a memoir is that you can express your emotions about past events, gain more understanding, and wind up with a feeling of ownership. Owning your past means owning your life, and your future will thank you.
So put on your TSA hat and dig into that emotional baggage. It may hold things up temporarily, but your trip will be the better for it.
Reason #3: You’ll learn about yourself, which is a good idea
My Grandmother Doris worked with her daughter (my mom) to write her memoir. It’s a family treasure. Having that slim, unassuming book on the shelf is a little like having Permanent Grandma. For the title, Grandma chose one of her favorite sayings: “To Thine Own Self Be True.”
In Hamlet, as young Laertes is leaving home, his father Polonius gives him a long list of advice on how to live his life, concluding with this famous line. (I dare you to say it out loud right now, wherever you are!)
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.-- Polonius. Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 3.
Of course, centuries before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the ancient Greeks had pretty much settled on “Know thyself” as a central pillar of philosophy. There are few better ways to learn about yourself than by writing your own life story. I promise you that by revisiting the important moments in your life and taking the time to write them down, you’ll see things you missed at the time they occurred.
It’s like those Nazca lines in southern Peru (the ones that might have been drawn by ancient astronauts but probably weren’t). These are enormous drawings across the Peruvian desert, some up to 400 yards long. They seem to have little significance when observed from the ground – they usually look like a ditch – but viewed from a thousand feet up they become huge figures of animals, humans, fish, and more. At that height, patterns emerge that are invisible from the ground. My point is you’ve been looking at the ditches your whole life – now rise up and see the enormous patterns and designs that show you who you are.
Reason #4: You rock
Are you afraid you’re not interesting enough to deserve your own memoir? Well, you’re in good company, but with all due respect I disagree. When we see “interesting” people like heroes and celebrities, it’s tempting to think they’re better than we are, but it’s seldom true.
Take Nicki Minaj. Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ll probably admit she’s one of the most flamboyant and outrageously creative entertainers around. Well, a few years ago I saw a reality TV show where they followed her around and filmed her daily life. I was shocked – for a person who is absolutely electrifying on stage, the glimpses I saw of her on a typical afternoon were about as interesting as my afternoon. And I say that with respect and admiration – it was wonderful to see that in a lot of ways, she’s a normal person like the rest of us.
Likewise, they say Cary Grant didn’t like to be interviewed because he was afraid people would discover that with no script and no camera he was actually a very dull person.
I think you’re every bit as interesting as Cary Grant or Nicki Minaj, and likely even more interesting. Because the problem isn’t that you’re not interesting, it’s that you THINK you’re not interesting. And I’m here to tell you: You are a fascinating person with a remarkable life, and by writing your memoir you’ll prove it to the world and (if necessary) to yourself.
Reason #5: You can get it published – by you
I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you might only know 40 people in the world who want to read your memoir. But the good news is those 40 people are YOUR people: Family. Friends. Co-workers. Your high school history teacher. Children or grandchildren who aren’t even born yet. These are the people who know you, and who will love your memoir. I know this because I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when they’re handed a memoir written by someone they love. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting.
There are lots of reasons for this, and just one is that your life has a thousand details you’ve probably never shared with anyone, simply because nobody’s asked. My Grandma Doris loved BLTs – they were her favorite sandwich. Of all the time I spent with Grandma until she died at age 94, I never knew that until I read her memoir. What’s so important about a BLT? Nothing – until you understand that it’s not about the sandwich, it’s about something this person loved. And when we share what we love we become closer to each other, and that’s what the world needs.
Best of all, you can publish your own memoir and it doesn’t have to break the bank. It’s very common. I’ve had small hardcover runs printed very nicely by The Book Factory (no relation to The Word Factory) in Dayton, Ohio. If you want (and why not?) spend a little more and find a designer for your memoir.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now: begin writing. It will illuminate your life in the ways I’ve listed above, and also in ways you cannot imagine.
Peter Andersen is The Word Factory's lead editor and a member of the training and coaching teams. His Seattle-based company, Remarkable Lives, specializes in recording oral histories and producing individual and family memoirs. His upcoming book is called Damn Good Things – Small Moments That Make A Big Difference.