An “autobiography” or “legacy book” is a personal history you write for family members, friends, and sometimes colleagues, hoping to inspire and influence them with the legacy of your personal life and career. At its best, your life story will impart your values and wisdom in a way that inspires, teaches, and leads those who come after you. Rather than a plodding story about when and where you were born, which schools you attended, and what degrees you earned or positions you’ve held, a great legacy book will delve into your dreams and reactions, emotions and personality. Written well, it will reveal not just your triumphs and joys, but your fears and insecurities, failures and foibles. Wrapped in authentic stories, descriptive details, and engaging dialogue, your legacy book can be one of the greatest gifts you ever give to your loved ones, friends, and peers or those you have mentored.
Start by Creating a Life Map
One way to start writing your legacy book is to draw a timeline of important events on a long roll of paper that will become a map of your life journey. Ideally, this paper can remain rolled out in a safe place for you to return to again and again. Create your timeline with large, easy-to-read lettering using a black marker or colored pens to distinguish key moments or turning points over each decade of your life. Jot notes to yourself about how you felt or what you learned from each life episode.
To expand your own view of your life and what’s most notable to others, consider inviting family members, friends, or peers to jot down their own memories of events or interactions they recall having with you. Also, encourage them to write down their feelings or interpretation of those events. What did they learn from you or hear you say? Why did those things matter to them? You don’t have to include everything other people mention on your life map. Just let them know you’re gathering their ideas to help you remember and make decisions about what’s most important.
Free Write and Chunk Material into Chapters
Once you’ve drafted your life map, you’re ready to start the next phase of writing. Try not to censor your thoughts as you begin. Your first draft is for your eyes only. Simply free write about as many noteworthy events, places, and people as possible. Then chunk and organize that material into longer episodes or chapters about your life.
As an autobiographer, organizing your book can be challenging. Will you, for example, write chronologically from birth to your current age, or will you start in the present and then flashback to the past? What pictures will you include, if any and why? How will you transition from one period of your life to another? Rather than organize your legacy book chronologically, you might organize your life story based on topics, such as family, friends, career, hobbies, or places you’ve lived and traveled. You could also organize chapters based on life stories that exemplify your beliefs and values, such as “never give up,” “be a lifelong learner,” “defend others,” “always negotiate,” “stand up for a cause,” “put family first,” “plant gardens” (both literal and figurative), or “dance when no one is watching,” etc.
Imagine Your Life as a Series of Scenes
While based on actual events from your life, experts in the field of autobiography consider life writing “creative nonfiction.” In other words, to make a book engaging for readers, autobiographers write stories from their life just as they would create scenes for a movie, a play, or a novel. You, too, can simply imagine weaving together a series of key scenes from your life to become one coherent life story. At the very least, each scene will have a plot (what happened), a setting (the location or context), and characters (including you), who sometimes talk with each other (indirectly or directly, using dialogue).
Make Your Writing Vivid and Interpretive
To keep people reading, appeal to their five senses, ensuring each scene is vivid. Help readers see, touch, taste, smell, and hear what has happened to you and why that experience was important or how it shaped your choices in life. To help jog your memory for details, read old letters, email messages, social media posts, or a journal, if you kept one. Work to capture the personalities of those who nurtured, influenced, and spent the most time with you by including descriptions of specific clothing or jewelry they wore, how they walked, or what they did or said that impacted you and why.
Notice how the specificity of writing in the following excerpt from a published legacy book makes you feel like you are living this man’s memories about loss: I arrive back at my car, now as hot and dusty as I am. I long for the icy air-conditioning and a cold drink from my thermos. But I’m reluctant to leave. I keep looking around for something, as though I have lost something or left something behind. I know I may not be able to return, and truthfully, there is nothing to return to. It’s just a dot on a map, a wide place in the road. I realize Metropolis is a metaphor for all that is dear to me—a sense of home, of family, of being at one with my people. A part of me is still here—will always be here. Dust clouds billow behind me as I drive away.
Personal reflections and interpretations like this one provide life-like scenes that readers can identify with and learn from. Who hasn’t been scorched by the heat of a day and been grateful for something cold to drink? What person hasn’t felt grief over the loss of some place, some thing, or some one? Doesn’t it always provide comfort knowing you’re not alone? Your autobiography can provide your intended readers that type of comfort and courage, knowing that you, too, a real person, has survived and even thrived, after loss.
Decide What’s Important or Not
One of the toughest things about writing an autobiography or legacy book is sifting through what’s important and what’s not. To make the most impact, the stories you tell and scenes you create about your life should be structured around a cohesive theme or overall message you want to share. Early on in your writing process, consider hiring a professional writing coach or editor who is practiced at storytelling and making tough decisions about which stories are important versus which stories are trivial (or maybe even boring) and need to go. You can also ask a friend or peer you trust to give you honest feedback about your manuscript. Then tell yourself, “Less is more” and dare to start writing your legacy book today!
Dr. Laura Bush published a ground-breaking book of literary research in Mormon women’s autobiographies: Faithful Transgressions in the American West: Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women’s Autobiographical Acts (Utah State University Press, 2004). She works as a writing coach, ghostwriter, editor, and publisher to help individuals and corporate leaders leave lasting legacies about their life and career.
Evelyn Jeffries has written and edited numerous publications over her career. Currently, she has edited over 20 books for Utah and Arizona entrepreneurs, authors, and autobiographers. She also serves as a volunteer editor for the LDS Church History Department.