Writing your Personal History

For those who wish to record their own stories, here is some advice from Julie Meadows, OAM. Julie has helped up to fifty or more persons write and publish their own stories. Julie gives six tips on getting started:

1. Some Guidelines in writing your story:
a) Choose a starting point that appeals to you, and begin writing. These are the ones you will find are the most commonly used in the books you read.
b) A description of your hometown or the house you were living in when the story starts.
c) The family your grandparents, parents or even further back, if you have the information.
d) Your own first memory is a logical beginning.
e) A dramatic or fateful event in your life may be the right moment to start your story even though you will then probably go back in time in the following chapter.
f) A simple chronological detailing of your life. I was born in March 1942, the second daughter/son of ... "and then continue by using all the previous points mentioned.

It really doesn't matter where you start, because you can rearrange the chapters later if you want to. As this is your first draft, it is almost certain that you will change some of the material, or insert further anecdotes or information as it comes to mind.

2. Remember that you are the 'camera' which reproduces the landscape of the past, and the heart and mind that interprets it. The reader will only 'see' and feel what you put on the page, so always keep your audience in mind. It may be helpful to brainstorm. That is, before you start a chapter, write down, in point form and on a large sheet of paper, all the components you may use in your story or chapter, for instance, people, landscape, season, dates, anecdotes, colours, smells, personal characteristics, emotions etc. etc. You may now:
a) ignore this information, which has served its purpose by jogging your memory or getting you in the mood.
b) use as much or as little of it as you need.
c) make use of it as a checkpoint after you have finished the chapter.

3. Use anecdotes to demonstrate bald facts. For instance, one writer kept mentioning that her mother had been a beautiful young woman during World War Two in Poland. Reading it, I really only knew that her adoring little daughter thought that she was beautiful. I was unconsciously looking for further evidence and it came with a number of anecdotes, one of which was that the German soldiers went out of their way to be nice to the author, then a child in the hope of gaining the attention and approval of the mother.

4. Unless you are very confident, keep your language simple. It is better not to adopt a "literary" voice, which may only serve to come between you and your material. As an example of marvellous simplicity, read Tolstoy. (He actually rewrote everything many times to achieve that wonderful clarity and simplicity). Another example, on a different level, is Bert Facey's compelling "A Fortunate Life". It is usually better to tell your story in chronological order. It's generally easier for you to write, and for your reader to follow. You can always manipulate the time sequence later, if you feel the need to.

5. Be prepared to leave something you have written for a few days or weeks and then come back to it. An interval of time enables you to see your material as a reader might, and you may possibly want to make changes. At other times you will be assured that you got it right straight off, and ask yourself, "Did I really write this?"

6. Stay passionate! Believe that you have a story to tell, and the will and capacity to tell it. Be prepared to work hard. Professional writers do. It is lonely work, struggling to get on the page what you have in your head, but it is creative work, and very rewarding. It is comforting to remember that you are guaranteed a splendid gift to yourself, at the end of your endeavours, your autobiography.

Julie Meadows 2006