New York Times  Bestselling Author

Why I'll Never Write Your Life Story

If I had a word for every time I’ve been asked to write someone’s life story, I’d have completed several more books by now.
But I’ll never do it. Please don’t be offended when I turn you down. It isn’t that I don’t find your life story fascinating, believe me. Some people have lived absolutely incredible lives. But my answer to “I want to tell you my story so you can write it” is always the same: “I think you should write it yourself.”
Here are my reasons:

  • I have a zillion ideas of my own. I love knowing that my stories spring from my imagination. Often they’re inspired by a newspaper article (Brass Ring), an overheard conversation in a fast food restaurant (The Escape Artist), a setting (The Bay at Midnight). But what I do with that inspiration is completely up to me. Call me a control freak, but I like it that way. 
  • Your life story, while it may be fascinating, may not make for good reading. A good, readable story requires a structure and focus, and most life stories don’t fall neatly into readable form. That means I would have to tweak your tale in ways that might make you unhappy. No one wants their life story tampered with. It may sound like a good idea to have someone else write it, but how will you feel when I want to change Aunt Harriett’s name to Gladys because there are simply too many Harrietts in your family and the reader will be confused? Or I want to put your first communion before the molestation by your cousin because the story will be far more engaging that way?
  • No matter how amazing your story is, at some point my imagination will take over. I’ve proven this to myself over and over again, even with my own books. If it weren’t for my wonderful editors who know when to gently rein me in, my stories might read like science fiction. So, I may be writing your life story, but suddenly think of a more intriguing situation than the one that really happened. Or I may want to doctor reality up a bit to make it more heartwrenching/conflictual/inspirational. I don’t think you’d be thrilled when my imagination starts chipping away at your reality. 
  • Finally, I’m afraid of your life story. I don’t want to take the chance that your story may some day morph into something I later “come up with” and think is my own idea. So please understand that, if I meet you at a party or a booksigning and you start to tell me about your life story, I stop you. I’m only trying to protect both of us from future heartache.

So what should you do if you believe your life story is worth sharing? By all means, write it! Take a course in memoir writing. They’re frequently offered through adult schools. There are also many good books on writing memoirs, but the best I’ve found is Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer. She covers everything you’ll need to know. It’s also a terrific book for fiction writers as well, as her thoughts on theme and structure apply to any good storytelling. Even if your story doesn’t turn out to be publishable, it will be invaluable for the generations that follow you. I would give my new 21″ flat screen monitor to have just a few autobiographical pages from my grandparents. I can buy another monitor; the life story of a loved one is not so easily replaced. Get your story down on paper, in whatever form you choose, but write it yourself. You’ll be happy that you did.  
 

9 Comments

  1. Julie on January 19, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Hi, Diane…I wanted to talk to you about writing my life story.
    HAHAHA!!! Just kidding. 🙂 I’m not even a published author, yet people who know that I’m writing have said this to me.
    On the other hand, I have really enjoyed reading some fiction authors books they’ve written about themselves, i.e., Two Weeks with my Brother by Nicholas Sparks was excellent, IMHO. My husband even read that one and liked it.
    Oh, by the way, I finished reading Eat, Pray, Love, and I had to laugh at myself when I finished because my misunderstanding of her appearance with Richard on the Oprah show gave the story quite a twist for me alone. I obviously didn’t catch the beginning of that epidsode or missed something somewhere, if you read my previous comment about it. Hehe!! I hate to say much else here and possibly spoil it for anyone else. But, I still liked Richard’s definition of soulmate. Basically, that it’s not necessarily healthy to be with your soulmate, because it’s too energy sapping, or something like that…

  2. Diane Chamberlain on January 19, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Hi Julie. I do think some fiction writers can also be good memoirists. I hope to get back to work on my memoir one of these days myself, but no time at the moment. The one thing I learned while working on it is that it’s a challenge to squeeze reality into an engaging, focused format. The Rainer book is very helpful in that regard.
    After you posted about Richard on the Oprah show, I looked up the transcript of the show to see what he said and became aware of your little faux pas, which I will also keep to myself. 🙂 As for me, I’ve never experienced what I’d call a “soulmate.” I’ve had and still have phenomenal friendships and relationships, but I think the concept of soulmates is overrated and probably unrealistic. I’m a little tired and grumpy tonight, though, and may have a different opinion in the morning. . .

  3. brenda on January 20, 2008 at 11:51 am

    My daughter and the girls are here this weekend.
    Diane-should we read between the lines-are you just TIRED….????
    I agree with all you have written. I think I married my soulmate the first time-long story.
    As for now-am in the middle of a personal crisis.

  4. brenda on January 20, 2008 at 11:52 am

    P.S.
    I am reading all that you guys write-just not responding right now.
    New semester at the small university where I teach…new semester at the high school…new students…
    ALso-the other that I will write about later.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on January 20, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Brenda, sorry to hear you’re going through a crisis. You’ve had so much to deal with lately.
    As for being tired, I was last night, but I’m perky today and churning out chapters. Even perky, though, I’m still not much of a believer in soulmates.

  6. Emma on January 20, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    My sons talked me into writing my life story. I have Tristine Rainer’s book, but it’s sort of over my head. The most useful one I’ve found for “new” writers like me is “The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing” by Sharon Lippincott. I especially like the way she emphasizes that we each have to write our own way, and anything we write is better than nothing. Maybe when I have the draft finished, I can use Tristine’s book to make it better.

  7. Diane Chamberlain on January 20, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Emma, thanks for recommending that book. I love her statement that we each have to write our own way. So true! There really is no right or wrong when it comes to writing down our memories. How lovely that your sons encouraged you to do so.

  8. Linda Austin on January 23, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Great post. I wrote my mother’s memoir of living thru WWII in Japan as a child and it was REALLY constricting as it had to be done in her voice with no “errors” as she and our family would have been horrified if I doctored anything. I look forward to the freedom of writing my own stories in my own voice!

  9. Diane Chamberlain on January 23, 2008 at 11:19 am

    Linda, that must have been incredibly difficult to write. I checked out your blog. It’s great! In my spare time, I’m working on a familial blog as well and yours is inspiring.

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