I found some examples of life story books.
In part 1 of this post, I talked about how important it was for me to find life story books that other people have written. Before this, I wasn’t sure what a personal history should look like. That’s troublesome when you sit down to write one. Without knowing what to shoot for, you don’t know where to aim.
I got lucky when I found several well-written personal histories. In this post, I’m going to talk about how I use them to better understand the genre and how they’ve helped me improve my writing skills.
Where do I look?
But first, a little more detail on how to find these particular kinds of books. It can be done on Amazon, but I’ve had better luck in brick-and-mortar used bookstores, where I can pull a book off the shelf and leaf through it (life history books that find their way onto an Amazon seller’s listings generally don’t have the “Look Inside” option).
At the bookstore, wander over to the memoir section and scan the spines of the books. All of them will have the title and/or author printed on the spine, including most personal history books. The one thing PH books will generally NOT have is a logo. That’s because the majority are printed and bound but not, officially speaking, published (see part 1 of this post on the difference between the two).
No publishing house = no logo.
And that’s good to take note of, because if you see Random House’s icon, you know it’s not going to be a personal history. Why? They don’t publish them. (There are lots of other published books that can serve as examples of good writing, but that’s a topic I’ll cover another day).
This is a simple way of narrowing things down. Not all books without a logo will be life stories, but some may be. You might have to make several visits over time before you find them. For me, it was worth it (and a great excuse to hang out at the bookstore!).
What to do with the book once you have it
Imitation has gotten a bad rap. I’ve never understood why. It’s a tried-and-true method for learning how to do something new—for composing a song, sketching a nude, writing a story. Mastery comes later, but in the beginning, we can all learn by studying and imitating works we admire. Imitation leads to practice leads to good writing.
If you’re a writer, chances are you already know this. And have probably dissected works you admire just the way I’m proposing we do for life story books. Let’s pop off the cover and look at how the gears work. Then go write some practice passages using the same techniques, only giving them your own twist.
I’ve been doing life story writing since 2010 and this is still the topic that keeps me awake at night. In a nice way, though. It’s catnip to my brain, a Gordian-knotty riddle that I love to try to untie.
Why is it so difficult? Because most life story books aren’t going to have a traditional story structure. You may be able to find a narrative arc, but it’s not going to dictate whether something belongs in the story like it does in published novels and nonfiction.
Here are a few things on structure I’ve learned from studying other people’s life story books:
Chronology — Unless there’s a compelling reason not to, this is the best way order the events of a story. It gives a sense of verisimilitude; as in life, so in art. In life, we go from beginning to middle to end. By portraying it like that in the book, it lends the story a feeling of authenticity, a close representation of a life lived, stripped of artifice.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to make some decisions, because even if you think of a life as following a linear path, there are paths that branch off of it. Take the storyteller’s parents, for example. Are you going to weave their respective histories together? Tell them in discrete chunks? Run them in parallel, alternating from one to the other? And what if, after their paths converge and they’re now a couple raising Baby Storyteller, one of them is called off, say, to war? You can see the chronology doesn’t stay chronological for long.
Another more prosaic question is where to start the book, and how. One of my favorite early discoveries is a book called An Ordinary Life: A Memoir, by Robert F. Patton. He begins philosophically by asking, “When you hold an infant in your arms, do you ever wonder what that child’s life will be like?” By the second paragraph, his low-key, self-effacing humor makes its appearance. It’s one of the best “I was born…” sentences I’ve come across: “According to usually reliable witnesses, I was born on December 9, 1927, at the home of my parents, Wylie and Lena Patton, in Hickory Township, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.” That’s a lot of exposition in one sentence, but early sentences are often asked to carry a heavy load. What makes this so brilliant is that the author goes on to describe the difference of opinion between the delivering doctor and the parents about Patton’s birthdate. Facts, it seems, aren’t always easy to find. It took an affidavit to settle this one. “So much for the infallibility of public records,” he drolly observes.
Tone — It’s not a structural element, but tone is a crucial element of any book, and one that can be tricky. Writer’s spend their whole life honing their “writer’s voice;” in the space of one book, we have to create a voice that’s not even our own. And then a different one for the next client!
This is where looking through several example books can help. All of them will have a different tone, and by doing a close reading, you can figure out some of the ingredients that went into making it.
In Pleasant Journey: A Memoir for My Grandchildren, the tone used by author Mary Noel Grant is that of quiet refinement and sensitivity. She quotes Shakespeare, favorite prayers, and beloved recipes. Aside from being a master of concision, she also lets her humor shine through in lines like these: “The war was over and people wanted to return to their homes and forget about fighting and rationing. They wanted to bake cookies, make babies, and get a home of their own. A home of their own was the difficult part. The other things were easy.” Compare that to Arthur Greeno’s description in Dysfunctional Inspiration of meeting Noell, the woman who would later become his wife. At the time, she was dating someone else. “Deep down inside, she knew she wanted to marry me…Hey! It’s my book; it’s how I remember it! Don’t believe a word Noell tells you.” Greeno’s tone, compared to Grant’s, is über-casual and conversational. It’s almost as if he’s not writing a book at all, but rather catching up with an old friend.
Anatomy of a chapter — This is related to structure, but from a close-up view. What are the elements in each chapter? Some open with an epigraph. Some use subheads to transition from one chunk of narrative to another. Some make heavy use of scenes and dialogue and some are almost pure exposition. (Sometimes I’ll go through and find the ratio of each. I admit this may be overdoing things.)
No Rocking Chair for Me: Memoirs of Vibrant Woman Still Seeking Adventure in Her 90s is by Esther Leeming Tuttle and her co-author, Rebecca E. Greer. In this example, they do a masterful job of what I think of as a “micro-scene,” combining historical context, characterization, and action: “When Jimmy was eight months old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging us into World War II. I remember that Sunday very well. Ben was an intellectual man who never did any housework. But as he listened to the horrifying reports on the radio that day, he surprised me by washing every window in the apartment. He just couldn’t sit still.”
And now neither can I!
Thanks for reading, and I hope I gave you some ideas you can use. There are lots more ways of using other people’s life story books for study, and maybe you have ideas I haven’t thought of. If so, please share them in the comments. I’d love to hear how you go about building your personal history skills.
Until next time, happy writing.