What has life taught you that you might write a book about?
This article tells how the writing of her first memoir changed and enriched Barbara Brabec’s life, and how writing your life story could change and enrich your life too.
A SURVEY IN The New York Times a few years ago revealed that 81 percent of people felt they had a book in them, and should write it. That translates to over 200 million people in the U.S. who want to write a book in their lifetime. I can’t find any statistics to support this, but I believe a large percentage of these people dream of writing a book about their own life and the lessons they’ve learned from it.
And why not? As Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
I believe we all have a story inside us just begging to get out, so if you’ve ever thought about writing the story of your life, or a little memoir about a particular time, place, or person in your life, I urge you to pursue this dream. I’ve always believed that we are the most interesting person we shall ever know, and when we’re not trying to figure out someone else, most of us spend our lives trying to understand ourselves. As Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) once observed, “If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it.”
“Write about yesterday. Write about today, which will be history tomorrow. Continue to write about all of your todays until the very end of your life. Put the words on paper that will prevent your life and the lives of other members of your family from slipping into oblivion, leaving yet another generation of Americans with only a tenuous link to its heritage.” – Lois Daniel, author of How to Write Your Own Life Story
WHETHER YOU WRITE a memoir to leave a legacy for your family or to have a book you can sell for extra income, the rewards can be astonishing and worth far more than money, as I learned first hand during the writing of The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides. By the time I’d finished this memoir about my late husband, Harry, I was not only seeing myself differently, but him through entirely new eyes as well. From the beginning, I knew that this book was going to be both Harry’s biography and an autobiographical narrative of my life with him, as well as the documentation of a forty-year period of time in America’s musical history that is now gone forever.
What I didn’t know at the start was how quickly this writing would turn into a real and exciting life adventure in which I would begin to feel like a detective hot on the trail of clues about the man I’d married just eighteen days after we met. After nearly forty-four years of marriage, I was sure I knew Harry like the back of my hand. But there were countless things about Harry that I never knew until I began the book. Before I knew it, I was turning up surprising facts about his life that were a revelation to me; personal things he had never thought to tell me or simply preferred not to discuss, and things it had never occurred to me to ask about before.
There were many “Aha! moments” and flashes of insight that suddenly enabled me to understand things I had never seen clearly before because I was too close to them at the time. I’ve now concluded that the best psychologist in the world couldn’t have done the good for me that I was able to do for myself by objectively studying my life and Harry’s, not as his wife or widow, but as an author in search of the truth in both of our lives.
Also important here is the fact that I could not have written this memoir at all without my journals, scrapbooks, and copies of hundreds of personal letters to family and friends that documented so many details about my life with Harry from the moment we’d met. And this book wouldn’t be filled with Harry’s original humor if I hadn’t started what I called “My Funny Book” shortly after we were married. In it, I recorded Harry’s amusing and often downright silly day-to-day utterings for posterity, figuring if they made us laugh once, they’d make us laugh again later. (Of course I included the best of his original humor in my memoir published decades later.)
On Journaling and Keeping a Diary
OUR OWN WORDS can come back to us years later to become a tremendous source of help and encouragement to us—which is exactly why I have always urged people to keep a journal. When we write our thoughts and feelings from the heart at the time they occur to us, we are able to tap into something elusive that will be lost forever if we don’t grab it right then and put it in writing. It’s this kind of writing that led to many of my books.
For many, keeping a journal is a habit; for others, it’s a kind of testimony to the fact that they are living and not just existing, that they are doing things that are interesting to them and others. I’ve always felt compelled to put my thoughts and ideas into writing the minute I get them because I know I’ll forget them by tomorrow if I don’t. And when I find writing by others that speaks to my heart, I have to jot it down somewhere so I won’t forget it; also because I might need a good quote like that for some article or book I may write. Of course I have a large collection of my favorite quotes by other writers that I constantly refer to when I’m looking for just the right quote to start or end an article or story.
IN Life Writing, a book on how to write personal memoirs (no longer in print), author William J. Hoffman said that the function of all experience is for us to understand ourselves better, and in the act of writing we come to understand our subject as we examine it and give it form.
“Experience, thought, and feeling, once they are translated into words, survive,” he said. “Through our writing we may put to rest old animosities, calm old tempests, soothe old wounds, relive old joys, renew old loves; pay homage, honor, cherish, and preserve. Whatsoever we preserve, preserves us.”
Are You Ready for a New Life Adventure?
MANY PEOPLE with a book inside them are dreaming about seeing their words in print, but without some encouragement and help, few of them will realize that dream.
Whether you want to write a how-to book, a small business guide, a memoir, a novel, or a private, personal recollections book of memories for your family, getting your words in print and distributed to whatever audience you have in mind has never been easier or less expensive than it is today. Read the articles in my Writing/Publishing department for how-to articles and perspective on how easy it is to self-publish today, whether privately or for profit. If you need some hand-holding and start-up guidance, check out my affordable telephone consulting service that can help you get started.
May these uplifting quotes from one of my favorite novelists inspire your writing life as they inspired me.
IN ONE OF HIS MANY BOOKS, Dean Koontz dropped a quote that spoke directly to me as a new widow. Koontz’s female character in The Taking is a writer adrift who no longer has a long‑term plan or a clear purpose, who can’t see any farther than the next dawn. But then she remembers her mother telling her that “Talent is a gift from God … that a writer has a sacred obligation to her Creator to explore the gift with energy and diligence, to polish it, to use it to brighten the landscape of her reader’s hearts.”
It’s interesting how a quote in a novel can sometimes hit us between the eyes. Reading the one above shortly after I’d been widowed made me stop and look anew at where I might go as an aging writer who felt adrift in life without the anchor my husband used to be. That’s when I began to focus on writing about LIFE and decided to become a memoirist.
I have often included Koontz quotes in my writer’s journals, and here’s another one that will speak to my heart as long as I live:
“I do not define life expectancy by the length of life, but by the quality of it, by what I expect from it and by how well my expectations are met. I have learned . the more you expect from life, the more your expectations will be fulfilled. By laughing, you do not use up your laughter, but increase your store of it. The more you love, the more you will be loved. The more you give, the more you will receive.” – Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy
Documenting Your Christian Journey. The benefits of journaling about your life experiences, with Barbara’s special journaling tips and short examples from her own Christian journals to inspire you.
Four Months on a Tank of Gas—The Secret Life of a New Memoirist ]PDF]. This revealing glimpse into Barbara’s life as an author tells how her first memoir grew from the gleam of an idea to a published book in hand.
How to Write a Good Memoir. How the book, Your Life as Story, helped Barbara write a better memoir.
Knowing Someone Like a Book. In writing a biographical memoir about her late husband, Harry, Barbara was astounded by some of the things she learned about his life when talking with friends of his she’d never met before.
The Writing of Marcella’s Secret Dreams and Stories. What Barbara learned from researching and writing this family memoir.