In my guide, “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It,” I reassure anyone who wants to write their life story that there are countless approaches they can take in shaping their memoir or autobiography. One example that fits for many women and men is to tell the story of your life’s work as the primary focus of your book.
I was recently reminded of this pathway to writing a life story while watching the play “Sondheim on Sondheim” in Cleveland. If you haven’t heard of this play from its Broadway run, it’s an engaging reflection of Sondheim’s creative work in writing the musical scores or lyrics for dozens of Broadway hits: “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Follies,” “Sunday in the Park with George.” The format features interview clips with Sondheim sharing what he did, how he did it, and how he felt about it. As his voice fades out after each interview segment, a cast performs a collection of his popular and less-prominent songs. Sondheim, then, is the first-person narrator of his professional life, with others helping to illustrate and flesh out his accounts. With the big screen looming high above the stage to project Sondheim’s physical presence in the interview segments, it makes for a different kind of theatrical presentation. Somehow, though, it all blends beautifully.
Of course, even though this is primarily about Sondheim and his music, we also learn a good bit about Sondheim and his personal life: his anger and resentment toward his parents; his struggles with intimacy in close relationships, his void of not having children, his deep appreciation for his mentor and ally, his life optimism. As with a written memoir, the ability to zero in on one specific aspect of a life story just naturally opens the door to seeing and knowing a great deal about the person’s full spectrum of life.
Is there a helpful message there for you? If you are writing your life story, or yearn to do so yourself or with the help of a personal historian or ghostwriter, do you have one compelling role or life experience that can form the foundation for your memoir? Is it your life’s work, either your career or in building a successful business or enterprise? Did you accomplish what can often be the most daunting and rewarding life’s work: raising a family with your full heart and soul? Did your persevere through a major challenge or hardship? Did you serve in a war? Did you have an unforgettable experience?
Tell that one story, and tell it with passion and conviction, and trust that you are really presenting the essence of your full life story. From my experience helping dozens of clients and students focus on one life venture or experience, I can assure you that not only will others discover and appreciate a whole lot about you, you will discover something valuable about yourself along the way.
You don’t have to be a famous figure like Stephen Sondheim to narrate your story of what you did and how you did it. After all, when you write your memoir or autobiography, you’re already the star of the show.
- Kevin Quirk, ghostwriter for memoirs and autobiographies, personal historian, and teacher of “Writing Your Life Story” classes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It: An A-to-Z Guide To Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.”