: August 8, 2023 Posted by: Maureen Comments: 0
Eraser on yellow pencil erasing the word "memories"

By Maureen Santini © All Rights Reserved.

There comes a time when every person’s life story is in danger of being lost to the ages. For those of us over the age of 50, that time is now.

“Every death is like the burning of a library,” in the immortal words of Alex Haley.

All of our personal history, knowledge, way of life, and memories should be preserved in writing. Otherwise, these treasures will expire when the last breath is drawn.

One in three Americans are at least 50 years old, according to the US Census Bureau. The amount of irreplaceable knowledge these lives represent is impossible to measure.

Your life story is the equivalent of hidden treasure for your family and descendants, but only if you write it down. Don’t deprive your family and future generations of their heritage by taking your life story to your grave.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die,” said Thomas Campbell.

How to Start Writing Your Life Story

Writing a memoir or autobiography is not as daunting as it may seem. In fact, the process is nearly effortless with a step-by-step chronological approach.

I devised a decade-by-decade template that provides an easy, free way for you to write your story for posterity. Each decade of your life is equivalent to a chapter. If you are 60 years old, for instance, your personal history book will contain six chapters – one for each decade – plus a chapter to preserve family history and a chapter to sum it all up. That’s eight chapters in all.

I created individual posts for each chapter to guide you along the writing journey. The decade-by-decade method is simple because it is chronological. Each memory or fact leads to the next. You start writing with the day of your birth.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from the post about your first decade of life:

“Begin by writing down everything you know about the day you were born: your full name at birth, the name of the hospital or birthplace, the date and time of birth, the city and state, the names of your parents.

“Fill in blanks: birth weight, color of hair and eyes, birthmarks, nationality, citizenship, parents’ citizenship, birth order, names and ages of siblings, religion, street address and type of residence.”

Once you’ve captured your birth information, it is easy to continue. Most of the information is in your memory bank. The post goes on to prompt you to write about schools, playmates, teachers, favorite subjects, toys, family activities, pets, and anything else you recall from the first decade, ages 0 to 9.

You will quickly accumulate a large amount of information simply by writing about your life chronologically.

Once you’ve exhausted your memory about your first decade, move on to the second decade, ages 10 to 19. If you are 60 and write about one decade each week, you’ll have a manuscript in eight weeks (six decades plus chapters for family history and a summary). If you are really ambitious, you can compile your story in eight days, a chapter a day.

Protect Your Family “Library”

Write about your life whether your family is enthusiastic at the moment or not. Few people are interested in family history during youth or early adulthood. Interest in the lives of parents, grandparents, and ancestors often doesn’t develop until middle age. Too often, at that point, the information has vanished.

It is a fact of life that information about our parents and grandparents grows dearer as we age. Descendants tend to cherish every anecdote, every photograph, and every memory exponentially more at the time of death or when illness makes further communication impossible.

People Want Family Heritage Information

A poll by Ancestry.com discovered that Americans want to know more about their family heritage. Many people lacked basic information. For instance, 33 percent of those polled did not know where both of their parents grew up.

Furthermore, the poll found that 25 percent didn’t know the names of the countries their families had emigrated from, 21 percent didn’t know which city any of their grandparents were born in, 14 percent didn’t know what any of their grandparents did for work and over 20 percent couldn’t name a single grandparent’s parent.

Nevertheless, 84 percent said it was important to understand their family heritage. Many wanted to know more about their grandparents, including stories of their youth, childhood memories, and life advice.

Only You Know Your Entire Story

Even when we think we know people, they are still capable of surprising us. Posthumous discovery of unknown facets of those close to us isn’t unusual. A dozen people may each know parts of your life. But only you have the full story. You can test this assumption by asking a few teens to tell you everything they know about their parents as youth. Many will draw a blank. No one will know the true story of your entire life unless you write it down.

Every person you’ve met along your life’s journey knows bits of various chapters of your life. Your parents know several chapters. Your spouse knows a few. Your children also know a chapter or two, as do your friends, colleagues, teachers, work associates. But you are the only person who knows your entire story.

Middle Age is a Good Time to Begin

Senior citizens and retirees should definitely be writing their memoirs now. But you do not have to wait until then. Middle age is a good time to begin. Encourage your friends, siblings, parents, and spouse to do the same. Adding information and memories as time progresses is much easier than trying to recall fading memories.

Piecing together a family history becomes progressively more difficult with each successive generation.

Daily life often changes drastically from generation to generation. Safeguarding the narrative of your life and times has the added benefit of preserving certain ways of life that have all but vanished.

Memories of living through tumultuous times, such as wars and depressions, are often especially distinct. But descriptions of ways of life that are no longer dominant, such as lumber mills, and railroads, are also compelling.

First-hand accounts of adapting to innovations that once seemed revolutionary, such as televisions, personal computers, and cell phones, are also part of your story.

Memories, experiences, and lifestyles that seem etched in stone one day, for one person, often fade away as years pass. Don’t let your life story be lost to the ages. If your life matters in the moment, it is worth preserving for posterity.

People Want to Feel their Lives Mattered

Aside from passing down your life story to future generations, there are additional compelling reasons to go through the exercise of writing.

Research shows it is important for people, at the end of life, to feel that their lives mattered.

Reflecting on the past and creating a narrative of what your life has meant is a powerful way to create a sense that your life mattered, according to Dr. Dhruv Khullar. His article, “When the future is running out, narrating the past helps to prepare,” appeared in The Washington Post on July 14, 2019.

Let Your Life Live On

For many, a strong drive for self-preservation plus the certainty of eventual death fuels a motivation to know that part of them will live on, according to an academic study.

“People can gain psychological security in the face of death by feeling as though they are part of something that will ‘live on’ after them,” the authors wrote in “It’s Only a Matter of Time: Death, Legacies and Intergenerational Decisions.”

“One of the most effective things we can do to buffer our anxiety about death is to attempt to transcend death by finding meaning in our lives.

“Central to this meaning is that we have impact that persists beyond our physical existence,” according to “How to Think about Building Your Legacy” in the Harvard Business Review.

For these reasons, your life story is the most valuable gift you can give to your family, to yourself, and to posterity. Your autobiography is your legacy. Begin writing today.

For a step-by-step guide to writing about each chapter of your life, visit Write Your Life Story for Posterity.

Note: This post has been updated from the original.

Maureen Santini is a writer, researcher, and former journalist who spent many years attempting to piece together a family history without the benefit of first-hand accounts of the lives of her ancestors. She created passdownyourstory.com to encourage people to write their life stories for posterity.