Telling Your Life Story


Kate, David and Bo (Super Agility Dog) Marshall


by Kate Marshall

After years of urging from his family, ninety year old Carl Marshall finally set to work on telling his life story. He spoke into a tape recorder and enlisted his daughter Karldene to transcribe and edit the manuscript. It wasn’t easy, but they were determined. A full year later, Carl proudly distributed his two volume, illustrated memoirs to his children and grandchildren. He passed away two years later.

Just do it. Not everyone has the time, energy and clerical support that Carl had. Many want to record their life stories, but are overwhelmed by the idea. The good news is that there are lots of ways to share your life stories with the next generation. Set perfectionism aside, find the method and tools that suit you and get going. Your family will not judge your writing skills or penmanship; they just want to hear about your life.

Full memoirs. Even if you feel confident about writing a traditional memoir, you may still want to check some “how to” books out of the library to help you structure and focus your memoir. Such books will also offer technical tips on making your writing sing, but a word of caution: don’t let worries about the writing itself stop you. Bang out the first draft so at least that is done, then fiddle with metaphors and grammar if you want to afterwards.

Autobiography tools. If starting with a blank page feels daunting, consider using one of the fill-in autobiography books out there, either to create an attractive finished product or just to trigger and jot down memories before incorporating them into another document later. Just after Carl Marshall labored over his own memoirs, he and his grandson created a best-selling do-it-yourself autobiography journal to make it easier for people: The Book of Myself (Carl and David Marshall, in bookstores for $15.95). It is a keepsake journal divided by early, middle and later years, and by themes such as family, friends, education, work and the world. On the top of each page is a topic that you write about below. For example, one ‘Early Years’ page prompts “What I enjoyed doing most after school was:” Grandmother Remembers ($18.95) and Grandfather Remembers ($19.95), both by Judith Levy, are also popular.

With these aids, you can easily do a little each day, in any order you like. Another advantage to using these books is that your kin will have your stories in your own handwriting, giving it a more personal touch.

If you don’t like to write at all, use The Book of Myself or another tool to prompt you with topics and then talk into an audio tape. Or ask a relative to use the prompts to interview you “live” and video record it.

Get creative. If the linear structure of an autobiography doesn’t feel right, find other ways to give future generations a flavor of who you are. A few ideas:

Family Cook Book. If cooking has been important in your life, collect your favorite recipes into a bound notebook and write about a time you remember making each of the recipes. Where were you? Who else was there? What was discussed or celebrated at the meal? Include recipes handed down to you by other family members. Share some stories about that person or an occasion you remember when they prepared that meal.

Hobby Scrap Book.  Have you had a special hobby or passion for a long time? Collect the yarn or fabric scraps from your knitting or quilting projects. Write about the grandchild you were knitting for, the inspiration for the quilt you made or who taught you to crochet. What friendships developed because of your hobby? Connect your hobby to the people and events in your life and the lessons you learned. Did the first car engine you loved to tinker with power you and your future wife to the prom? Add as many photos, tickets, receipts or other goodies as you can. Visit or Stamp Diego (800-845-2312) for presentation ideas.

Children’s Story. Pick an event in your life that might make a good children’s story: the time your dog ran away, a special Christmas, struggling as the new kid in school one year, your wartime experience or a funny situation when your kids were young. Have fun adding dialog. You won’t remember every detail, so feel free to embellish a little. Keep it short and age appropriate to the reader.  Add photos or illustrate it. Or ask your grandchild to illustrate it for you.

Recording your life stories can be surprisingly easy if you pick the method that suits you, use the tools that are available and don’t insist on perfection. Your family will be very happy to have it, no matter what.


Kate Marshall is the co-author of Words to Live By: A Journal of Wisdom for Someone You Love (Emily and Kate Marshall, 2005) and The Book of Us: A Journal of Your Love Story in 150 Questions (David and Kate Marshall, 1998), The Life of My Dog (Marshall Books, 2007).  Her husband David is the co-author of The Book of Myself: A Do-It-Yourself Autobiogrpahy in 201


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