Sunday January 24, 2021

Let us say you are planning to outline the story of your life. Even if this thought hasn’t occurred to you yet, consider it. I say this because, at some point down the road, your brain will begin to cull the photographs it took, the details it filed, the emotions it felt. It will box those memories and drive them to Goodwill.

They’ll be gone.

Before that happens, consider your options. Where would you start your life story? Some writers begin at the beginning. Think Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

Some writers begin at the time a primary conflict in their lives takes place. For example, in “A Long Way Gone,” the story of a child who became a murderous soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, the chronology begins when the author is 10 years old. Others record a specific time in their lives.  Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” is a good example, the chronicle of a brief period when Roth cared for his elderly, dying father.

There is beauty in remembrance; there is tenderness and warmth and, as happens so often with memory, the erasure of acrimony. Surely we recall the painful words, cutting as they may have been then and tenacious in their survival, but if we can harness the brain’s infinite ability to access its files while we still have our wits about us, we can also draw to mind those explosions of joy, excitement, hope, laughter. The kinetic nature of the senses.

Recall the sweet melting of a forkful of warm apple pie a la mode at the Christmas table. Vanilla ice cream drips off the tongue, the sharp tang of creamy cold surrendering to a gooey, crusty heat. Our loved ones sit near. Candles flicker and candle wax drips. Eloquent and awkward toasts are spoken. Champagne flutes clink. Soft laughter ripples through muffled conversations.

The memory is beginning its work.

Everyone has a life story. And everyone has an audience that would love to hear it. But before you begin to write the details, draw a map for yourself.

Start with a plan.

  1. Determine your audience. Why are you writing this story and who are you writing it for? For your family and friends? Because I’ve asked you to get your memories in print before they disappear? To get on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show?” Mark your motivations.
  2. List the turning points in your life, the milestones, the challenges. What stories should be included? What can and should be left out?
  3. As you work your story into chapters, you’ll notice a recurring theme or multiple recurring themes. Make note of them.
  4. Make a commitment to the work, even if for just an hour every week. Stick to it.
  5. Start soon. Time slips away from us, like a thief in the dark.

Share your outline with a family member or trusted friend. If you are or have been a participant in any of the Candlelight Writing Workshops (or if I’ve waitlisted you), send it to me. I’d love to read it.