Obituary Guide

An Idea for the Year Changeover: Write Your Life Story

Brandon Sun,  December 26, 2020

David McConkey

Well, we hope that next year will be better than this one! I would like to describe an idea for the turning of the year. Here is something to wrap up the old year or to send forward as a resolution for the new year. It is no-cost and – once you get started – relatively simple and easy: write your life story.

What is a life story? In this context, a life story is a record of the basics of your life, limited to a couple of pages. Your assignment is to sketch an outline of your life, beginning with your birth and getting to the present day. Having a short length as a goal and then accomplishing the task gives you a useful product and a satisfaction of a job well done. (I speak from experience. Long languishing on my “to do” list, I finally composed my own life story in advance of writing this column. There, done, satisfaction!)

Why write a life story? There are several reasons. First, it can be a taking stock of one’s life, appropriate at the cusp of the new year. Second, it can be a helpful reference for your family and your descendants. Third, it can be the beginning of – or the inspiration for – more extensive writing projects. These could include a memoir, a family history, a contribution to genealogical research, or a start on your own obituary.

A big advantage of the life story is its conciseness. Keeping it short increases the odds that it will be completed. If that is all you do, that’s great, pat yourself on the back. If it becomes a spark to do more, all the better.

I would like to make two suggestions for younger folk, including students who might be looking for an activity that could do double duty as a school project. My first suggestion is that you help an older relative write their life story. You could serve an invaluable role as prompter, listener and editor. Remember: the intent is a total of only a couple of pages.

When my mother was getting toward the end of her life, my two siblings and I helped her compose her life story. She was happy to have reviewed her life and to have provided a lasting record for her family. As a side bonus of this remembering, we learned some things: both matters of fact and of feeling about happenings. After my mom died, we siblings had the life story on hand as a basis for a newspaper obituary and for a funeral eulogy.

The second suggestion I have for young people is that you write your own life story. Even though you may think you don’t have much to say, you might be surprised. As well, recalling facts about your life is useful when composing a resumé.

There is another advantage to writing about your life at this moment – perhaps especially if you are young – and that is to record your impressions of living through a pandemic. Experiencing a huge event like this typically goes through stages: first, feeling shock; then, adjusting to a new reality; eventually, accepting a new normal. Finally, there are fading recollections as life – for individual citizens and for the larger society – races on.

If you record your pandemic experiences now, you will be glad later. This pandemic, too, shall pass. And so, too, shall many of the memories.

How to get started on a life story? First, just start. Then, follow the old dictum: at the beginning, don’t write your finished, polished version. Instead, get something down now as a rough draft; you then have material later to work with and to refine.

Several years ago I interviewed the Brandon journalist, storyteller and memoirist Fred McGuinness and he shared some of his tips for writing longer memoirs. One notion in particular would also be useful for a short life story: keep in mind that your writing jogs your memory.

“You don’t know how much you know. Every incident and event is filed up here,” McGuinness told me, as he tapped his head. “Your writing is the connecting rod to your old memories.”

So, here are three concluding thoughts for completing a life story. Get started. Limit it to a couple of pages. Remember that the writing process itself will coax out facts, ideas and perhaps some surprising insights. 

Good luck on your life story, should you decide to write one. Good riddance to 2020. And good wishes to everyone for 2021!

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See Also:

Write a Life Story

Memoir Writing: Ten Tips

Writing Your Own Obituary Offers Chance for Reflection

Write and Give a Eulogy

Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story

Six Words To Describe A Life?

From the Résumé to the Eulogy: Describing Ourselves

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