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Write Your Life Story — and Maybe Even a Best-seller

Whether you’re attempting a personal essay or a full-fledged memoir, these tips will get you started.

En español | You’ve launched your kids, paid down the mortgage — and maybe even retired.  Now, you finally have time to write that first-person essay or book you’ve been contemplating all these years.

But where to begin?  Don’t let that blank page intimidate you.  These easy strategies will help you move past your writer’s block and get going with your story.  

  • Start with gripping. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t begin Eat, Pray, Love with the prosaic sentence “I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut.” Her first chapter began in midlife, with “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”

    Who wouldn’t read on? Whether you’re writing about your high school job at the five-and-dime or your battle with cancer at age 40, start with a moment where your personal story is already beginning to generate heat. That incendiary moment can guide you through the entire writing process: Add only those anecdotes, those memories, those scenes that reflect light back on to the opening.
  • Show it, don’t say it. Breathe life into your writing with color and detail. Don’t simply assert that your grandmother’s lasagna was the most savory meal ever served.  Instead, guide your readers to that conclusion:  Let them smell the tomato sauce and see the flecks of oregano in the ricotta cheese. Use words to paint a close-up portrait of your grandma:  her eyes, her hands, the stoop of her back.  Write about how she spent days preparing for a holiday meal because she believed, as if it were her religion, that food was love.

  • Play detective. Even though you’re writing about your life, enrich your account of it with research and reporting.  Jog your memory by digging up newspapers from the time period you’re writing about. Ask other family members for their recollections. They may remember things differently, but even that will help you nail down your own version.

Do some legwork:  Maybe your family no longer owns that old farm on Butter Churn Road. But drive out there, park across the street and let the contour of the landscape and scent of the air remind you of the past. Each small memory is a string; pull on it, and something new comes up on the other end.

  • Tell the truth. Don’t try to be a hero — or a villain. A story where you portray yourself as perfect — or perfectly awful — isn’t as interesting as an honest, nuanced tale about a real person: flawed and wonderful, mucking about in the confusing business of life, trying to do well but often falling just short of the goal. If you are simply human, your reader will relate.

  • Just do it. Still unsure where to begin? Try this: Just start writing.  Force yourself to put words down on the page. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, as much as you can spare, on a regular schedule, and treat it like a job. Pretend you’ve got a boss who expects to see you at your desk, writing!

    Don’t get discouraged if your prose isn’t perfect. Expect your first sentences to be awkward, and ignore the voices telling you that your story isn’t important enough. That’s what is most wonderful about writing. You can revise and revise until you get it just right!

    Dinty W. Moore’s next book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, is due out from Writers Digest Books in August.