How to Write Your Life Story
Bestselling Author Jean Hastings Ardell Offers Tips for Writing your Autobiography

Everyone has a story. Whether you want to write yours to share with children and grandchildren, in hopes of getting published or just for yourself, author Jean Hastings Ardell offers tips for getting started. Ardell has taught memoir writing for 15 years. Essays about her life have appeared in literary journals, magazines, newspapers and in the anthology “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” In addition, her non-fiction book “Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime” appeared on the Los Angeles Times list of bestsellers.

“Every person has an account of their lives – their personal story. It’s of profound value, and it’s worth some thought and planning to begin,” Ardell says.

Getting Started

In the beginning, the most important thing is to write, write, write. “Write a messy first draft – throw everything in you can remember,” Ardell says. “After you’ve gotten your first draft on paper, have some fun with it.”

Here are a few of her tips for having fun with your writing:

  • Use techniques to relieve the use of the first person singular – that almighty “I” that can grow so tedious in memoir writing
  • To do this, set scenes, use dialogue (including interior thoughts), include lists and bring in other people and even pets to the story.

Seeking Feedback

Once you have some material to work with, you’ll likely want to improve and refine your writing. Writing groups can be a great place to do this. Low cost or free writing groups can often be found at your local library, place of worship, bookstore or through a continuing education course.

“Writing in a group keeps you accountable,” Ardell says. “Writing is the easiest thing in the world to put off. Knowing you’ll be meeting at 7:00 p.m. every Wednesday helps keep you writing. Workshops that meet over time can really forge close bonds among the writers, too.”

Ardell offers the following suggestions for getting the most out of your writing workshop:

  • “I have only two rules in my workshops,” she says. “One, keep what you hear in class confidential. Two, offer constructive ideas on how the writer can improve his or her work – a clarifying phrase, more precise word choice – but no judging others’ life choices.
  • Most of us find it hard enough to get the facts down without worrying about what others in class will think of us. If you find yourself in a gossip-fest or a nest of budding critics, consider finding another workshop – one that feels more accepting.
  • In a workshop, you’ll receive feedback on your writing. Some suggestions will be helpful, but others you may decide to ignore. “It’s important to remember that you’re the author of your own story,” Ardell says. “ ‘Author’ and ‘authority’ are closely related – you are in charge of how much and what you tell.”

The Finished Product

“With self-publishing these days, it’s actually quite realistic to expect to publish. What’s difficult is getting paid for it,” Ardell says. Self-publishing may be a good choice for those who wish to have a finished product to share with family and friends.

If you’re seeking paid publication, Ardell suggests starting with smaller pieces of your story. “Publishing excerpts is a good way to break into print: a 700 or 1,500-word essay about a particular aspect of your life, which can appear in magazines, newspapers and online media,” she advises.

Whatever your ultimate goal, writing about your life can be fun, rewarding and even therapeutic!


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