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.