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Writing Your Life Story

by Linda Herskovic

For Book Editing Associates

So you want to write your memoir? Mazel tov. Go for it. I’m working on my own life story, and I’ve compiled some helpful hints that I’d like to share.

You do have a story. You have something unique to say. I guarantee it. You need to figure out what it is. It doesn’t need to be earth shattering. You don’t have to have saved a village or invented Pokémon. My story seems pretty typical of a lot of kids who grew up Jewish in the Bronx in a certain era with immigrant parents. It’s all in the telling.

Choose a perspective. Since you’re talking about yourself, you’re probably going to write in first person, from the “I.” But you still have to figure out who’s talking. Is it the adult-you looking back? Is it the child-you, experiencing life events as they unfold? Is your story being told by your dog, the family reporter (or therapist)? It’s your story; you can make it work. I chose the child perspective after many starts and stops. So far, it’s working for me. You may need to try different voices and go with what feels right.

What makes you unique? What makes your perspective different? Mine is usually my humor. Is your story dark, funny, a mixture? Are you a cynical person? An optimist? Somewhere in between? This is your voice, your tone. I can’t help being sarcastic, so my writing is full of it—I mean sarcasm. What’s your strength? Maybe you notice details that elude others, maybe you’re compulsive, over-compassionate, dark. Whatever it is, use it.

Choose an event. This will help focus your story. Did things change when you went to Woodstock (for example, did you smoke pot for the first time)? The day your dad lost his job? The day you moved to America from Turkestan? Is there a particular memory that is driving you to want to write? You may not even recognize it when you start, and the whole story doesn’t have to revolve around it, but it helps to have a point of entry, maybe something that started the ball rolling. My event was the trauma of being bussed to a new school and going from an insular, primarily white existence to a tough, racially charged one. Remember, it doesn’t have to be profound, just something that started you thinking or had an effect on you.

Yes, you might offend someone. Nothing can crush creativity or disable a person more than the notion of, “What is so-and-so going to think about this?” What if I alienate or make so-and-so mad at me? If you’re hung up on the consequences of your writing, you will never finish a sentence. And if you distort your story to make everything and everyone nice, including yourself, you will lack edge, conflict, and a sense of reality. Let the so-and-sos know they’re free to write their own memoirs if they don’t like yours.

I write a lot about family. My brother in particular was not very nice to me back in the day. He was dismissive. He didn’t want his little sister hanging around him. I felt rejected. I talk a lot about that dynamic, many times in unflattering terms. We’re very close now−and I’m sure when he reads my story he’ll be surprised at my take−but it’s my memory and my reactions so I have to be true to myself, guilt aside. I’d say the same to anyone writing his or her story.

What’s in a name? I’ve chosen in this current draft to change most of the names, including my own for now, although everyone is recognizable. It helps me to disassociate a bit. Especially with the ones who aren’t here anymore. You may want to do that too.

Don’t let just anyone give you feedback. Find someone you trust, who will help make your work better, not disarm you or make you feel badly. Maybe find someone outside your circle of friends, someone impartial, someone with no ulterior motives. Consider working with a professional memoir editor. The memoir editor is, essentially, a beta reader who knows what he or she is doing. In my case, I had a teacher in my playwriting group whom I trusted implicitly and supported my writing ambitions. Get critiques only when you’re ready. No one likes criticism but, if it’s from the right source, it could help you be a better writer. The trick is to be discerning and only take input that you feel will make your story better. Be careful about critique groups inhabited by unpublished writers. My friend, Lynda Lotman, of Book Editing Associates (who also survived being bussed to that same school-from-hell in the Bronx), can expand on that warning. Hint: She calls it “the blind leading the blind … astray.”

Don’t overthink it. I started with some stories about my summer in the Catskills at a bungalow colony−originally as an essay on one incident—which lead to other stories. Lesson learned, just write it all down. Like a lump of Play-Doh, you can shape it later. Spend some time ruminating, thinking and discussing, but do it all in between writing. And don’t censor yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, take it out later.

Schedule. I try to write every morning. Writing for a certain amount of time—preferably at the same time every day­—is helpful. It’s good to have a routine, even if you’re not producing much. Just sitting there will help discipline you. Impose a deadline on yourself and stick to it. That’s the best way to complete any project.

Take a class/Join a group. Most people thrive in a supportive environment. Find a class with a teacher who inspires you, or find a group with people who are also writing. Hearing others’ work and giving feedback is helpful to our own writing process. And it could also help maintain deadlines. I wrote an essay in a class I took at the New School, and it started me on my way. It doesn’t even have to be a writing class. Take interpretative dance or improv comedy. Anything to get the creative juices flowing.

Disclaimer. The term memoir, to me, has expectations that could feel limiting and intimidating. I’m calling my piece … title … with disclaimer: Loosely based on semi-real events from someone who has limited recollection. Not to skirt the truth (whatever that is) but to make it my truth. I may also write a disclaimer that the names have been changed to protect the guilty. But you can always use your own disclaimer to shape how you want your work to be read.

Accuracy. You need to get the events, places, and times right. You can’t say that Woodstock was in 1988 and you lived through WWII in the 21st century, but as far as details—well, it’s just a memory. This is a tough one. Not to say don’t get bogged down in “facts.” Try to remember as clearly and accurately as you can. My events happened about 40 years ago. At my current age I can’t remember what I ate a day ago.

Dialogue. As a playwright, I love dialogue. It allows you to present other perspectives. You probably didn’t have a tape recorder way back, but recalling snippets of dialogue and using them in your story can liven up the narrative. I do it a lot.

Be real. For me, writing is really about the emotion. When we tell someone our dreams, which are really nothing more than a string of images that make little sense, we connect the dots and become most animated in the telling. We put in our reactions, our feelings, our interpretations to make it all make sense. Writing from your own experience can be a similar process. Your job is to take snippets of memories and sew them together in some comprehensible, relatable way. If you’re writing from the heart and are driven by passion and some sense of urgency, it will be reflected in your work. Be real, true to yourself, and maybe even vulnerable. If you care about your story, so will we.

Now sit down and write!

I’ve got to get back to my story.

Linda Herskovic is a former standup comic, a playwright, an editor, a dramaturg. She’s written articles, stories, jokes and has a theatre review blog. She’s currently traveling down memory lane and collecting stories in preparation for writing her memoir.

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