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1. Why Write Your Life Story?

Your quick and easy-to-read guide to life-story writing, by Anna Foster

Writing the story of your life is like having a family photograph taken. It provides family and friends with a record - or a snapshot - of you.

Future generations can enjoy treasured memories of a family member they never knew and will have a picture of the times in which you lived.

You may decide to write a life story for a variety of reasons - it's important for you to understand your motives from the start.

Leaving a Legacy

Do you want to leave a record of your personal and/or public achievements?

You may want to write a detailed history of your family for future generations. Readers will be eager for details about aunts, uncles, early homes and, of course, your antics and misdemeanours.

Have you experienced an 'extraordinary' event in your life or have you performed a valuable service in the community? In this case, your book may be of interest to a wider audience. Copies can be placed in your local library.

Readers will want more than just the facts; they will be interested in your personal interpretation of events.

Family History

Researching your familyís history has been made popular by programmes like the BBCís Who Do You Think You Are?

This guide doesnít give specific advice about genealogy (books and websites abound on the subject), but family histories and individual life stories are natural bedfellows.

Life stories often incorporate stories about grandparents and even great grandparents. They tell the reader about your roots and pass on important family information to future generations.

Itís also a good idea to produce a simple family tree, going back at least two generations. Be sure to include as many relatives as possible. If you are giving the book to aunts and cousins, include their branches of the family.

You can also include family history which is not central to your story in an Appendix. This might include letters between grandparents, extracts from a previous family memberís memoir or the results of research into another branch of the family.

The material wonít divert attention from your story, but will add to the family record.

Case Study — Stan's Australian Reunion

Stan has witnessed the enormous changes which have taken place in farming over the last 80 years. His tales of farming life, from haymaking in Herefordshire as a lad in the 1920s to the thriving family farm in Kent today, have been written for anyone who shares Stanís love of the land.

During his researches, Stan discovered how the family had been split up during the 1920s when hardship drove his grandparents and three of their five children to find a new life in Australia, leaving Stanís mother and her sister behind to be brought up by an aunt in England. Contact between the two branches of the family was lost.

Sixty years later, through his researches, Stan found the Australian cousins who barely knew of his existence.

Stanís book has reunited the family, and brought the cousins back together after so long apart.

Stan was also able to fill in some gaps in the family tree for his book.

As Catharsis or Therapy

Have you been through an emotional experience, such as the death of someone in the family or a breakdown? Writing can help you come to terms with a difficult event.

By 'writing out' the emotion you distance yourself from the pain. You may not find the courage to write until years after the event has happened.

Alongside your own recovery, your experience may help others to cope in a similar situation.

The book can also be a way of thanking people who gave you help at a difficult time in your life.

As a Present

Offering to pay for a member of your family to write down his or her story is a wonderful gift. Without you, they might not find the motivation to start.

Perhaps your relative is either too old or too infirm to undertake the writing. You could help them or employ a professional writer.

Involve yourself with the project and provide encouragement. The time spent together, looking at old photographs and sorting through letters, can be a pleasure in itself.

Collective Memoir

Would you like to mark an anniversary of your organisation or celebrate a national event with a book? You might be a member of an amateur dramatics group, a charity or a local history society.

One group marked the Millennium in 2000 by producing a book of their two-mile lane, including the histories of the houses and the lives of the present residents.

The Queenís Diamond Jubilee in 2012 will provide another wonderful opportunity for local groups to publish celebratory publications.

Such books bring communities together and can also raise valuable funds for a local cause. Projects range from village picture books to company histories, adapted to suit your organisationís budget.

Case Study — Ann's Journey with the Pilgrims Hospices

Ann Robertson was co-founder of the Pilgrims Hospices in East Kent. The organisation celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2007 and Ann marked the occasion by writing the history of the Hospices as a fund-raising project.

She charts the hard work by committed volunteers which led to the creation of the first hospice in Canterbury, followed by a second in Thanet and a third in Ashford.

She wrote in the Introduction, ďAs you read this saga I would like you to see it as the story of a family growing up.Ē Included in her books are the staff, trustees, volunteers and patients Ė all of whom make up the Pilgrims Hospices family.

The book, published in paperback with full colour illustrations, is sold locally through the Hospice shops and will be an invaluable fund-raiser for years to come.

Pictorial Record

Increasingly, people are celebrating weddings, christenings, holidays, parties and so forth, with a book of photographs. A number of websites offer very competitively priced products. Other companies provide a bespoke service for a more luxurious and individual finish.

As the saying goes: 'A picture's worth a thousand words'. In this instance you could save yourself writing several thousand words by including pictures instead.

Further guidance about Pictorial Records is provided in Chapter 11.

Contemporary Memoir

Youíre never too young to write about your life. A twenty-something who has just returned from a gap-year experience might write an account of their adventures.

If you are about to head off on such a trip, record your experiences in a daily blog or notebook. Write as often as possible, so that the events and your reactions are fresh in your mind.

The recovery of a young person from a serious illness, such as a child from leukaemia, would also provide a moving record. A parent or close family friend could help a child write such a book.

Do you have any questions from this section? Please email me and I will try to help you.