Life vs. Life Story

As a freelance editor I’ve worked with several authors on their personal histories. This past October I went out of my way to find personal history writers as clients, by staffing an exhibit booth for my professional organization at the Association of Personal Historians convention in Sacramento.

Editorial Freelancers Association booth at the Association of Personal Historians meeting in Sacramento

A colleague and I at our booth, October 2015

But there have been a few occasions when I was offered a personal history editing gig and declined.

Why would I ever turn away a paying client? Because the story didn’t have a focus and the author wasn’t ready to create one.

But wait, why does someone’s life story need a focus? Life is life, right? Let me count the ways: We hurt the ones we love. We make bad purchases. We start on new projects and abandon them. We also experience successes, inspire people we only met once, and travel to the places on our bucket lists.

Life is messy. Life doesn’t arrange itself neatly into a story with a narrative arc (you know: conflict, rising action, climax, denouement, resolution). So why should anything we write about our lives involve choices about what to put where and what to leave out?

Because no one will read it otherwise.

There, I said it.

Put in a more positive way, stories are what bring people together, when we would otherwise be forever strangers in this wide world. Information presented in story form actually engages more of the brain and thus sticks with us better than information presented in, say, a table. Stories are powerful.

To transform the disparate parts of your life into a compelling story, you have to do more than simply place the words between two covers. And as your editor, I have to do more than just smooth out your delivery. Assuming we are creating a product for public consumption, there may be a fair bit of composting that needs to take place.

Yes, composting. Stirring around the eggshells and coffee grounds and yard bits until something sprouts. I like to borrow this metaphor from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. “We collect experience,” Goldberg says, and it’s not until we’ve sifted through all the organic matter for a while that we create the soil where our stories grow.

green waste in compost bin

Don’t kill your darlings–compost them!

Now, a scrapbook is one thing. For sharing with friends and family, you might collect a kind of word-scrapbook. Maybe that’s what your manuscript looks like right now.

It’s got your mom’s diary entry from the day you were born, and that day you cut your own hair when no one was looking. You plunked in that first A-plus essay for college that set off your career path in microbiology, because why not. It’s important! You once wrote some lyrical reflections on what it was like to grow up black on the North Side. Those have to go in the book too, along with your thoughts on religion. It’s all part of your identity. And you’d never leave out those life lessons Dad taught you while removing the wrong part from the ol’ clunker, his arms smeared with oil.

Because it might help people, you’ve also included details on how you hacked your schedule so you could put together a South Pole expedition in the midst of the busiest season in your career and home life.

vintage scrapbook

Vintage Scrapbook, by Tulane Public Relations. Used under license CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t want to leave out a blessed THING…by all means, make that scrapbook!

But if you want someone else to read your story, make choices. Hard choices. Even if you have lived a swashbuckling, action-packed life, you still have to make choices when you tell the story of your life.

Think about it. If you’re reading this, you are still alive. All of your stories have not been told yet. Even if you could record every waking moment, down to your most recent fart, the end result for all its thousand and one pages, will still be an incomplete story.

So, what one thing do you want people to know about you (that they can’t find in your LinkedIn profile)? What is the theme of your life—or a theme you think others will connect with?