By: J. Marlando
I’ve had a kind of odd career since I’ve worked off and on over many years as a ghost. As a “ghost writer” I’ve worked for all kinds of people from lawyers to doctors, psychologists to plumbers and mechanics. What I’ve done a heck of a lot of however, are biographies for people who want to leave their story behind to children, relatives and friends, but sometimes for commercialization of their experiences as well. I am sharing this to hopefully assure the reader why I have the credibility to write this article. Incidentally, my last two biographies were not ghosted and should you desire you can find them by going to Amazon or ordering through Barnes and Noble. The titles are: The Art of Survival, written with Charles Pierce and the other is DIN.
With the above aside, the intent of this article is to give the reader a “how-to” when it comes to writing their life’s story in the most interesting and entertaining way possible. For purposes here I am going to assume that you’ve never penned a book before. Thus, we will start with the very basics and continue on into the more complex. With this in mind, we’ll begin.
In the Beginning
The decision to share your story is an important choice to make as it will eventually become a part of the legacy you leave behind; a collection of your experiences, thoughts, feelings and insights.
An earlier consideration is to have at least a notion of what you want your readers to experience by reading your material. Every biography after all has a mood and a rhythm. While this will simply happen as your story unfolds on the paper, you will still want to, as said, at least have a notion of how you want to effect your reader. For example, by the end of this article, I want the reader to be inspired to write his or her story and feel a confidence that he or she can.
A mistake that many “new” writers make is attempting to remember the important memories all at once. In fact, when I work with a client, I usually have them record a section of their life at a time. I strongly suggest that you begin your recall like this too. Say you were born in 1955—concentrate on your first five years of life. Just lean back in the privacy of your home or office and share your memories with your recorder. You will be surprised how a few old memories will stir your mind into more and more of your childhood experiences. Some experiences you will use and others you will leave by the wayside. Good writing is deciding what not to write! Anyway, when you are finished listening to the recording you made, make notes and then sit down at your computer to start your story.
After you’ve penned your earliest childhood—if you’ve decided to include it in your biography—simply repeat the process only record your memories of your second five years and continue this process through the course of your entire book.
I suggest using the recorder because the odds are that you will forget a lot of significant memories and some of the material on the recorder will remind you of them. (If you were writing fiction, I would be telling you to just go to your computer and start writing but this is YOUR (true) story and you want to fill it with all the important, beautiful, ugly, wonderful, terrible times that will best carry your readers from one page to the next).
Also, never be afraid of making yourself imperfect either. None of us are perfect and none of us have always done the right thing for the right reason. We ALL have frailties, fears and faults; we have all made our mistakes! Your readers will want to know that your biography is not ego-based but an honest sharing.
This does NOT mean, however, that you have to make your book a confession either—there are some things that are nobody’s business but your own.
Along Your Way
As you are writing there will be a lot of information that pops into your mind: Oh gosh, you will declare, how’d I forget that?
I can promise you this will happen time and time again as you are writing your biography. DO NOT go back and try to implant it in your text. Make a clear and concise note and leave it to your final draft. You should have a bunch of these notes by the time that you’ve reached the last word of your last chapter. That’s right, after all the hours and devoted time you’ve spent on your first draft your book is only finished comma…not period. That is, you will have to do some rewriting if you want to make it a legacy of real value.
The amateur writer typically feels so relieved to have finished his or her book that he or she just wants to go out and celebrate. The challenge is that EVERY first draft has its problems! It doesn’t matter if you are Joe Doe or Mark Twain, your first draft, in the least, will need some tweaking and probably some re-writing in places. And, in the case of a biography, remember all those notes you took? It is at this juncture of the process that you will want to place them in your script WITHOUT making them read like inserts!
There is a little technical stuff you will want to know too:
1. Keep your chapters pretty well balanced. If your chapters are running 10 pages, with very few exceptions, all chapters should run between 8 and 12 pages consistently.
2. Don’t show off your intellect—do not use words that most people won’t immediately understand. When you’re writing, imagine yourself “talking” to your readers—pretentiousness doesn’t work in person and it doesn’t work on the written page either.
A. Attempt to start your biography out with zest and excitement. You want to “pull” your readers in from the start.
B. Emotionalize when you can as opposed to intellectualizing your story. You want your reader to “feel” your experiences as much as possible.
Most importantly, do NOT write for your future readers, write for you and NEVER concern yourself with pleasing anyone with your writing. Write your biography because you have a passion to tell your story and secondly to have your story told. Your passion will naturally unfold in the minds and hearts of your readers.
This is a personal reference but when I write a book or even an article I do not show it even to those closest to me until I have completed the work. Everyone has opinions and I do not like cluttering my mind with other people’s thoughts until I have completed a work. However, when I am writing for clients I generally do not have a choice in the matter which is part of the writing business. Clients like to know you’re not sleeping on the job but when it comes to curious bystanders, I keep the work to myself until I’m satisfied that it is the way I want it. Once I’m satisfied I am able to be extremely objective to both overt praise and harsh criticisms.
Certainly writing can be hard work. Remembering that the thickest book has been completed one letter at a time so prepare to spend some effort on completing the work. Whatever you do, do not get anxious to cross that finish line. The moment you do this is the moment that your story will begin losing its passion and impact. At those times that you get tired or simply do not feel like writing—don’t write. In the long run you will save time by giving yourself ample breaks from the work. There is another side to this coin, however. If you stay away from writing for too long you can lose pace and flow.
In regard to the above permit me to give you the greatest advice of all: While writers are typically known for their intellectual prowess, the intellect has turned many a potentially wonderful script into mental molasses. Permit yourself to write from the heart. Your heart is far more talented, wiser and honest than your brain is capable of being. And, it knows the truth of your story far better than your brain only thinks that it does.
Why Write a Biography
I believe that every person’s life is important and that every individual does not have to wrestle Alligators in Alabama or swim the English Channel to have a story worth telling. Every life has its ups, downs and turnarounds; its happy and sad memories. Every life has had its challenges and gone through its tears and fears, its joys and sorrows! When one writes a biography of his or her life, he or she is leaving more than a vague memory that will soon enough fade into some forgotten past but instead a memoir that can be passed down from one generation to the next.
My own grandmotherwas born in 1894, before cars, before airplanes and popup toasters; she lived through two world wars and was still around for the moon landing. How I wish she would have left her journey behind in a written portrait of it all. All I have left is this old photograph and it is priceless to me. Yet, in thinking about it, I am sure she would have said that she’d never done anything in her life worth writing about. How mistaken she would have been since, beyond all else, she was a teacher of the heart.
We all have our memories of kitchen chatter and holiday laughter; the loving touch of someone’s hand; of friends and relatives, work and play. There is simply not a human life that is unimportant and this is why I believe your story is worth the telling.
Special Note: There is a wonderful book with title “Islands of Recall,” penned by Louise Cabral. The book is a great read and concentrates on how best to write your life story. This truly insightful work assists you all along your way as you return to your unique past and all those "islands of recall" that have made your life meaningful and important to share.
The book is available at Amazon in hardcopy or as an e-book. You can also purchase the book by ordering direct at: email@example.com. (Cabral will sign your copy if you request it).