I want to talk here about why you or another person might want to write your life story, or at least start writing some stories from your life. But first. When I started thinking about writing this article, two movie scenes came to my mind immediately. One is from Shall We Dance, with Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere as the lead actors. The clip of this scene is here with this post, to the right. She’s talking about why people get married, but what she says is also important about why a person would even want to “tell their story,” and that is to have a witness to their life. She says, “Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness.” (at approximately 43 seconds)
The second scene is from the movie Bridges of Madison County, with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood as the lead actors. In this, Meryl Streep has written journals that her children find after she has died. A quote from her journal is this:
“… as one gets older, one’s fears subside. What becomes more and more important is to be known — known for all that you were during this brief stay. How sad it seems to me to leave this earth without those you love the most ever really knowing who you were. It’s easy for a mother to love her children no matter what — it’s something that just happens. I don’t know if it’s as simple for children. You’re all so busy being angry at us for raising you wrong. But I thought it was important to give you that chance. To give you the opportunity to love me for all that I was…”
These ideas of having a person witness your life and of being really known by another person, I think are the main things that prompt a person to want to write or share their life story in some way. I also see other aspects of the healing that takes place when a person goes through this process.
Some therapists, like me, use ideas from narrative therapy in our work with clients.
The main idea that I use from this is that we all have a “story” we are saying to ourselves about our life. This can include stories about events that happen to us and around us, people in our lives, and about ourselves. That story is our narrative and it is all about what things mean, what we think, our opinions, our sensitivities, what is important to us, and so much more.
That story is always changing, too. As we mature, experience personal growth, and learn new things, we also understand new and different things about our experiences, the people in our life, and ourselves. The way you talk to yourself about something that happened to you when you were ten years old is very different now than it was at ten.
So telling our story is important in the way it helps us feel known by people we care about in our lives, and it is also important in changing the story we say to our own self.
These two reasons are why I feel so strongly that telling our story, and the way we tell this story, can have tremendous healing for a person. For some, if you don’t do this in some way, you lose the opportunity to incorporate the more mature and insightful things learned along the way in life. And when you allow the story to change and evolve with those more mature and insightful perspectives, it can bring healing.
What are some ways you might do this?
- You could choose to write your life story in a very traditional way – get some journal books and start writing. If you are like me and things need to be orderly and linear (go ahead and laugh, I am), then start organizing your journal(s) by what makes the most sense to you: segment out by decade, or by major life events, or by areas of life (family of origin, friendships, work/career, life partner and family, hobbies/interests, etc.).
- You can do this in a very informal way, by talking to people you care about and sharing what is important to you without recording it in any way. This is obviously by far the simplest and kind of a “default” approach.
- You could make audio recordings of yourself telling stories from your life, or have a family member help you.
- You could hire an interviewer/autobiographer to facilitate discussions with you and make audio recordings of these discussions. This may be a very beneficial approach for two reasons: 1) you may have trouble thinking of more to add about a particular story and the interviewer can prompt you with questions; 2) the interviewer can give you topics or prompts periodically to get you thinking ahead of the interview and as a result, there is more material than there might have been otherwise; 3) when you are telling a story to someone you don’t know, often you will include more about that story than if you are telling it to a family member – we tend to leave out some details when we know the person already knows the story and it feels silly to repeat those details, while you won’t leave them out if you know the person hasn’t heard it before.
- You can record video of yourself telling stories from your life.
- You can get many books about writing your life story, take classes on this, or find information on the Internet to find more ideas.
- You can use other technological tools to help you – there are many resources on the Internet such as journaling apps. For me personally, I have found the service offered at StoryWorth (https://www.storyworth.com/) to be very easy to use and their approach keeps me engaged in the process. Each week you receive a writing prompt, and you go to their website to write about it. This happens for a year and then you have the option to have StoryWorth create a hardback book of your stories. You can add photos, too. I also love that I can share stories along the way with family and friends using email.
One thought I have about the healing that can happen when you write your life story is that often, parts of that story change. Events, people, and your view of yourself can begin to shift to different meanings or fit together in a different way. In this process, people find themselves able to forgive when they couldn’t before, or they realize there was a good reason to end a friendship because that person wasn’t healthy for them to be around, or they remember all the ways that they actually did do good work at a job they had even though their boss gave them bad performance reviews.
Not only can you feel like you are really known by the people you care about, reviewing the parts of your life in this way can bring peace of mind and a deeper appreciation and understanding of yourself.