Defining The Project
Author of the best selling Times of Our Lives, Michael Oke works with individual clients through his company Bound Biographies. Mike also lectures extensively, runs workshops and appears regularly in the media. He is based in Oxfordshire.
There are many ways to record your life story and this chapter will help you decide what sort of project you might like to undertake.
Before proceeding further it is worth considering four factors:
- your audience
- what type of record you want
- whether you require any assistance
- your proposed style of writing.
Knowing your audience
It is important that you are aware of your readership because the book will be shaped accordingly. For example, if your son has asked you to write you may consider it unnecessary to describe life in the East End of London after the war – after all, he was brought up there. However, not only will your viewpoints differ, even of the same event, but assumptions you make for him will not hold for every reader. What happens when a grandchild or a neighbour asks to read the book?
Such comparisons become even more stark if you have lived abroad. For those who know little or nothing about Colonial East Africa, wartime France or Carnaby Street in the 1960s, an opportunity will have been lost to provide a fascinating read.
Once you have decided to embark on writing a book, it is worth thinking more widely. As memories of your childhood become ever more remote, so new generations will find it increasingly difficult to understand a secret language . . . who will know what ten bob was in thirty years’ time?
For the purposes of your life story it is best to assume little prior knowledge – or even none – so as to appeal to a wider audience. You can still include the family in-jokes, most of which will probably go unnoticed by the uninitiated. Where such references come across as a little odd, you may need to include a small explanation for those not ‘in the know’.
For the sake of diplomacy it is also worth considering who might potentially read your book. If a close friend had written an autobiography you would undoubtedly be keen to find out if you were mentioned. The same will be true of those who read your book. The fact that you have sent someone a Christmas card for the last 43 years must mean something. Just a mention of their name and perhaps a sentence or two could save a lot of awkwardness if, and when, they come to read the book.
A simple way to deal with this is to review your Christmas card list and address books, and make a list of who should be included in your book. Invariably an anecdote or two will spring to mind, which can then be incorporated at the appropriate point in your writing.
While it may be your intention that the book will only be read by the grandchildren, you will be amazed by how many people ask to read it when they know that they have an author in their midst.
Deciding what type of record you want
There are many ways to record the story of your life and being aware of the possibilities may lead to a more fulfilling, enjoyable and comprehensive project.
The labels themselves are not particularly important, especially as many of them become blurred. What does matter is that you know what type of record you want to achieve.
For convenience, the terms ‘life story’, biography’ and ‘autobiography’ will be used interchangeably in this book, although the information will invariably apply to whatever project you decide to embark upon.
Here are some of your options:
This is the most common term used if you write your life story, and, by definition, is written by the subject of the book.
Alternative structures are suggested in Chapter 5, but usually an autobiography will flow chronologically, beginning with what the author knows of his or her immediate ancestors. The author is then introduced and the account of his or her life follows.
This may sound like a contradiction but is, in fact, a very popular way of presenting the life stories of two or more people – usually a married couple. Each partner writes an account that either stands side by side or is woven into the book. Assuming that both partners are equally enthusiastic, this can be an immensely enjoyable project.
Another variation is for one partner to undertake the majority of the writing, while the other provides the occasional few pages.
Several sample frameworks for such projects can be found in Chapter 5.
Such a book is written by a third party (or ghostwriter) either with or without the permission of the subject. The lives of the famous are often ghostwritten, and even books claiming to be autobiographies are often written ‘with assistance’. The quality of these varies enormously.
There is nothing wrong with ghostwritten books, but it is rare to find one that fully encapsulates the character of the subject. We tend to write the way we speak and our own book will reflect this. Our character and mannerisms will shine through, something which is very hard for anyone else to capture.
The term ‘biography’ is often used generically to refer to the diverse area of life story and reminiscence, including autobiography.
This is where more than one third party writes about the subject of the book.
Some people ask their children to write an account of childhood to be included either in the main body of the book or as an appendix. Again, sample frameworks for such projects can be found in Chapter 5.
Sometimes used interchangeably with the words ‘biography’ and ‘autobiography’, a memoir tends to be a collection of anecdotes rather than a detailed chronological history.
You may remember little about your childhood, or do not want to write about it for one reason or another, but hopefully that will not deflect you from writing snippets about the rest of your life. Characters you have known, stories from your national service days, anecdotes from your career, hobbies, parenthood and dozens of other subjects all make for an excellent memoir.
- Q:I only want to write about my childhood, but I have a few articles and some poetry – is it worth doing?
- A:The project is well worth undertaking simply for the satisfaction that you will derive from it, quite apart from the joy it will give to others close to you. The information contained within this book applies whether you are writing about a small part of your life or all of it. Additionally, suggestions as to how you might present poetry, letters, articles, documents, etc. can be found in Chapter 13. Your intended project is just as valid as any other.
Diary or journal
This is probably the purest and most intimate form of autobiography. You may have been keeping a diary for years, or have just begun. Whether this is kept as a private record or is made public, and if so in what detail, is entirely up to you. However, if you are of a particularly candid disposition and are outspoken in your opinions, the reference to libel in Chapter 11 might best be borne in mind. What you write in private may need some editing before it is suitable for a wider readership.
While this sounds imposing, it can be an autobiography with a stronger emphasis on the wider family than might otherwise be the case. In its more formal guise, the family history can be a well-researched and thorough document with leanings towards genealogy.
- Q:Do I have to include the dates of all my ancestors?
- A:If there are only a few it does no harm, but if your grandmother was one of 13 it could get a little tedious. The important detail is that she, with her twin sister Mabel (born three minutes earlier the other side of midnight), was one of 13 born over a span of 16 years from 1895. The twins were born in 1904, had three older brothers and two older sisters, and there was another set of twins later – Arthur and Betty. Your favourite was Aunt Tootles (Winifred – don’t know why she was called Tootles!). Also, in his final years Uncle Frank lived with you, with that infernal dog of his called Norman. You know nothing of the others. If you have all the dates of birth you may as well use them – they will be particularly useful for any genealogist in the family. However, to stop the narrative becoming tedious you could list the dates in a table, include them in an appendix or produce a family tree.
Who Do You Think You Are?
This excellent BBC television series follows well-known people as they research their family history. Information regarding family origins, migration, patterns of jobs, or perhaps a skeleton in the cupboard, can be intriguing. Many of us have such snippets wallowing in the recesses of our minds – maybe something mentioned in passing when we were younger, a slip of the tongue followed by a contrived change of subject, or perhaps the recollection of the abrupt termination of a conversation when we came into the room.
A limited amount of detective work may produce tremendous results, but as with genealogy, the emphasis here must be to pursue those lines of enquiry currently available and which may disappear imminently. Older friends and relatives can sometimes provide invaluable details about those a generation or two above, and maybe even the vital information you are looking for. If there has been a skeleton in the cupboard, they might be willing to talk about it as the years have diffused the impact – for example, a child born out of wedlock in the 1940s would have caused a scandal, possibly resulting in adoption.
If you talk to someone who remembers older members of the family, once you have asked about any intriguing matters, don’t forget to quiz them about more mundane, potentially frivolous, details – perhaps what your grandmother looked like, any mannerisms, favourite sayings, accidents and the like. Also ask for anecdotes, as these can provide fascinating insights, and an of-the-cuff remark might lead to some real gems.
Of course, if you are the oldest member of the family your recollections are the ones to be captured before the information is lost. By all means undertake wider research later, but if you are the source of any unique information, the advice here is to record that first. Records in the public domain are likely to be available once you have preserved your own memories, and it would be a shame for future generations to miss out on your own pearls of wisdom.
Genealogical research is pursued with great dedication by many amateur and professional enthusiasts. As plenty of guidance is readily available elsewhere, research methods will not be discussed here.
The findings of such research can fit easily within the framework of a family book, although care has to be taken not to create an imbalance. With this in mind, lists of raw data and census returns might better be encompassed within an appendix unless the book is a pure genealogical record.
Sticking to what you know
This book focuses primarily upon living memories – what we recall and what is readily to hand rather than any detailed research. A chat with Great Aunt Maud may well provide a treasure trove of stories about Grandma’s childhood. Documents will still be available in public record offices long after Great Aunt Maud and her precious memories are gone.
It is well recognised that most first novels are heavily autobiographical. It stands to reason that we write about what we know best and draw from experience.
Be careful if this is your preferred presentation; thinly disguised characterisations can cause ill-feeling by those who suspect they are the subjects . . . not least because it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
For those with extensive collections of photographs and other templates and with little desire to write extensively, a pictorial presentation of your life is a sound option. This can be presented in a photograph album or other special volume. Alternatively, sophisticated reproduction methods allow for copies to be produced in a cost-effective manner. Further details can be found in Chapter 13.
Obviously, any information you have about the pictures will be a great bonus, and, who knows, it might encourage you to take the plunge and write your life story.
In all the above, apart from perhaps the diary, it is possible for others to contribute to the book. This will usually be your partner, but there is no reason why it should not be a sibling, a cousin, or even a child or grandchild . . . a whole family celebration.
Being aware of opportunities offered by technology
While this book will primarily concentrate on the written record and presentation in book-form, this is not your only option. A sound archive can be considered, which has the benefit of preserving voices, with all their inherent character, for posterity.
Recording can be undertaken in isolation, but there is nothing wrong with someone asking you questions and their voice also being heard. In either case, preparatory notes on the topics to be covered will help.
Tapes can later be transcribed and printed by a friend or a local secretarial service to form the basis of a book if that is your desire. Of course, the reverse is also true: having written your life story, you might also enjoy reading it onto tape.
Using video or DVD takes this idea a step further, and for those with a flair for technology, there is nothing to stop you setting up your own website on the Internet with regular updates. The possibilities are endless.
The scope of this book
This book will focus on the autobiography written chronologically in book form. As this is the most exhaustive work, you can pick and choose what subsets you require. If you feel that the years up until the time you started work were largely unimportant (assuming I cannot convince you otherwise!), then begin your story there. Even if you do this, a few early details may be helpful. The reader likes to have some background, for example:
- when and where you were born
- the names of your parents
- your father’s work
- how many siblings you had and your place in the pecking order
- the type of house and area in which you lived
- your education etc.
This can be most revealing at a later date if patterns emerge . . . even if you have not been able to recognise them yourself.
Considering external assistance
Writing your life story is a large undertaking and some external help and advice might be useful. Hopefully, having read this book you will feel equipped for most eventualities and will even be setting your own milestones. However, sharing these targets and having someone act as a sounding board might be beneficial, particularly if you come to a difficult part in the story.
You will find that chatting about your childhood with someone else, preferably someone who knows little of your life and can therefore make no assumptions, leads to a whole host of ideas pouring forth. One idea triggers another, and before you know it you will have recalled memories you thought were long since gone.
Even if you have decided on a joint book with your partner, it does not necessarily follow that he or she will be the best person to offer objective advice, particularly if you never stop talking about the project!
Finding a writing partner
Various opportunities are open to you:
- a family member . . . maybe a sibling or an in-law
- a trusted friend
- a recommendation from a local writers’ group
- enrolment in a life writing class – many local authorities offer them
- enrolment on an adult education/university course
- assistance from a professional writing partner.
Some useful contacts can be found at the back of this book.
Setting up a life writing class
If a class is not offered by your local authority, you might like to set up your own. Two or three friends, a local advert and word of mouth will soon establish a small group. A couple of hours a week is all that is required . . . and it’s great fun.
The local U3A group (University of the Third Age) may offer such a class. If not, they may well be interested in helping you set up such a group under their guidance. (See Useful Addresses at the back of the book.)
- Q:I would love my dad to write his life story, but he doesn’t like writing.
- A:If you father wants to record his life story, there is no reason why he should not do so. Writing is often much easier than people appreciate, and hopefully the many suggestions in this book will help him get started – you might even suggest that you can type up anything he writes, and set him a realistic target: if he can send you a few pages about his time doing National Service by the end of the month then you will type it up. Once he’s started, it should be plain sailing.
If he finds the process of writing difficult, he may be persuaded to record some of his memories onto tape – again, with your encouragement in the early stages. You could always ask some direct questions to get things started, like, Where did you meet Mum?’ If he cannot be persuaded to open up in this way, perhaps a friend might have greater success asking the questions – or even a stranger . . . it’s amazing how people are more inclined to open up to someone when there is no ‘history’.
Of course, your father might be citing his inability to write because he doesn’t want to relive the past and undertake such a project, which has to be his prerogative, however much you might think otherwise.
Selecting your writing style
Writing in the first person
Most life stories are written in the first person. Initially, you might find it difficult using the word T so much, but it is hard to avoid and you will soon start to feel comfortable with this style. A well-written life story will sound like the author is speaking, and in speech the word T is totally acceptable.
A book written in the third person sounds stilted and uncomfortable. Unless you have very strong reasons for adopting this practice, it is not recommended.
Knowing your audience
Your style will largely be dictated by your audience. You might choose to adopt a chatty style, or perhaps prefer to be more formal if the book is intended for a wider audience, for example former work colleagues.
In most cases you will slip into a certain style without thinking about it, just as if you were writing a letter. It is important that you feel comfortable with how you write and do not over-analyse it. Just be yourself.
It is difficult to contrive a style. For example, if you are not noted for your humour, it is unlikely that your book will be a laugh a minute, but that won’t make it any less enjoyable for the reader. If you try to act out of character and be someone you are not the book might be a disappointment to those who know and love you.
Interestingly, men and women tend to write different sorts of books. As a rule, women are very open and are far more comfortable about including everything in their book, ‘warts and all’. Men have a tendency to be more conservative, being less inclined to share thoughts and feelings. This is probably a reflection of society; men are not encouraged to share at such an intimate level – women do it with their female friends all the time.
While these are observations gleaned from working with scores of people at an intimate level, they are a generalisation; individuals will fall into the different categories.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way. The choice is yours . . . this is your book.
Choosing a title
There is no need to finalise the title for a long while yet, but you might want to choose a provisional title for your book so that the project seems all the more real. If you haven’t given your title any thought, you might like to consider something intriguing to catch attention, rather than ‘The Life Story of Joe Soap’ or T did it my way’.
Drawing upon a theme from your life is a good starting point, perhaps a reference to your career. For example, ‘Tending to Care’ was written by a nurse, while A Balance Sheet of Life’ was the work of an accountant.
Other ideas are:
- A quotation – Unto the Breach Dear Friends
- Something intriguing – No Pie on Payday
- A family saying – Catch Yourself on Mrs
- A verse from the Bible – They Shall Inherit the Earth
- A song title – Don’t Forget to Remember
- A favourite hymn – The Wings of a Dove
You can have great fun with this, but don’t worry if nothing immediately springs to mind; something is likely to come to you during the writing of the book.
- Who is going to read your book?
- What type of record are you looking to produce?
- Are you writing on your own or is it a joint book?
- Do you require any external assistance?
- If you already have a title in mind, write it down – it will make the project more of a reality.
- Write the introduction to your book explaining why you are writing, who it is for and what you intend to include. This will be revised later, but the exercise will help you to focus on what you want; it will also help you to feel comfortable with your writing style.