Crafting a compelling life story: include the obvious!

‘And what did it look like?’

Alice, an attendee at one of my life story workshops, looked as if a lightbulb had just been switched on. Her face became animated as she recalled leaving a polluted mining town as a child to move to the seaside. Fresh air! Blue sky! The sea, the trees, the flowers …!

a yellow rose with green leaves in the background

I smiled inwardly, pleased that her life story now included personal impressions.

One of my first questions when I hold a life story workshop is, "What do you want to achieve?"

Most reply that they want some inspiration, some motivation to continue writing their story they've been working on for months, years ... decades...

Many of them begin their stories begin with ‘I was born on … I and x brothers and sisters … I went to school at …’ There is nothing wrong with this style of crafting a life story, but it can become a chronological account of events, a collection of data. It tends not to reveal the real you, the amazing individual your family and friends know and want to remember.

One exercise I give workshop attendees is to do a mind map. A mind map is a way of seeing connections, of teasing out ideas and impressions. To do a life story mind map, write down and enclose in a circle one life-changing event. (The first life-changing event we encounter is being born, but none of us can remember that!) It could be something as simple and non-dramatic as going to school, but it’s life-changing because this was the first time you spent most of your day with people who were strangers. From your life-changing event, draw a line to another circle and write in it what effect that event had on you, how it changed you. If school was your life-changing event, you may write in your circle that you had to learn to stand up for yourself, or (if you were a migrant) you learnt another language and culture, or you discovered your ability and love of maths or sport or history. That could lead on to influential people in your life, character development and so on.

When doing this exercise, my workshop participants usually write a list of events. So, I ask a few questions such as: ‘How did that make you feel?’ ‘Can you remember what you saw/heard/tasted/touched/smelled at the time?’ ‘Do you think that you are the person you are today because of that event?’

Like Alice above, they now comprehend. I can hardly stop them talking and sharing as they excitedly remember. Memories are vivid, like the first dance with the beautiful girl who is now his wife, what she wore, how shy he felt. Or being the first one in her family to go to university, her growth in confidence, her sense of purpose. One dear man opened up about a life of trauma and said, ‘I feel safe here. I can trust you all. In a way, it’s easier to talk to strangers.’

And that’s the point – it is easier to tell your story to a trusted stranger than it is to write it yourself, and a life story professional will prompt you to include your feelings, your senses, your thoughts – the things that make you who you are.

Contact me if you’d like to discuss the process of recording your life story.


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