I wrote my autobiography. You can too – and you should

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Peter Harris is 73 and has finished a project that has absorbed and excited him for more than two decades. He’s been writing his autobiography. Sounds daunting? Not so, says Peter, who had no previous experience in writing. He shares the journey and tells why you should consider writing about your life too.

So, we’re retired and we reflect on our life so far, hopefully a life full of adventure, work, love and play.

I’m retired, I’m 73 and I’ve completed my autobiography – my earliest memories, family, friendships, working life, adventures, experiences, what my world was like when I grew up compared with now.

It’s been a great experience. I’m not a journalist, but I do love the English language. My philosophy is if you can read, you can write.

The project was originally inspired by a 97-year-old great aunt, who jotted down some notes in pencil about being taken to her wedding down Puckle Street in Mooney Ponds in a horse-drawn jinker.

But the spur to finish the project came in 2007. Out of the blue, Susie, my wife of 31 years, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). She died 54 weeks after the diagnosis. It was a reality check, a reminder that life is fragile, that there are no guarantees. It was then that I realised if I wanted our descendants to have a record, I needed to make it happen – it was time to leave a record of my life experiences for my family.

I have been blessed to marry again and, with the encouragement of my wife Bernadette, I have completed my objective. I ended the story at the date when Susie died but with an added heartfelt chapter called Life After Death.

So, the beginning was about 20 years ago. Susie and my children heard of my new passion yet they, like me, had no idea that the project would take so long or and grab me so hard. There has been much genuine encouragement and advice from family and friends to keep me on track with a readable style of writing.

This brings me to … can you do it too?

The answer is … absolutely.

I haven’t taken a course in writing because I wanted this to be my story in my words. I’ve written and rewritten it as I have progressed with the goal of making it interesting and informative.

It needs to be said that there were periods in my life when I was far too busy to write. Sometimes, there would be months between sessions. Then whammy, I would become almost obsessed and sit down at the laptop and continue my story.

Sometimes, I would recall an experience in the middle of the night or just before falling asleep and I would scribble on a notepad by my bed or make a quick note in myphone.

Whenever I felt inspired, I would challenge my memory and write like crazy.

We can’t make time, but we can allocate time to tasks.

I can assure you that when you sit down for 30 minutes to write, you will look up and see that four hours have gone. That’s when you must press ‘save’. Actually, press it more regularly than that.

The end result for me is … The Life and Times of a Baby Boomer – My Story. 71,610 words, complete with photos from ‘back in the day’ that I scanned so they could be included in the book. At least they won’t be left to fade in the family photo box or – for the electronic versions – lost in the ‘cloud’ never to be seen again.

Where, oh where, to start?
I started by writing down my very first memory and it took off from there. I included only what was appropriate to avoid embarrassing friends or being sued.

I decided to attack the contents in chapters, with each one covering a period my life, such as The Beginning, The Trip of a Lifetime, Working Life, Romance and so on.

So what are the benefits?
Writing is fantastic ‘brain gym’ and it filled in hours of my life and yielded a tangible result. My memory was tested, as was my brother’s when I asked for “details forgotten”. But most of all, it was great fun!

I didn’t have to do too much research – apart from such things as the technical details of a 25 pound Howitzer which came from the Gun Drill Book I kept from those days – as most of the memories came back to me naturally.

I did need spell check and I did discipline myself not to take myself too seriously. Seriously!

What does it lead to?
I then gave thought to turning some of my more entertaining anecdotes into personalised children’s stories for our grandchildren.

Maybe I’ll jot down, in some sort of sequence, my thoughts about life – or maybe not.

Writing my story was wonderfully enjoyable. It filled in hours on those days when I was free or just felt like sitting in front of a keypad to teach myself to type with a purpose.

It was amazingly stimulating. If you choose to get started, I’m sure you will enjoy the wordsmithing and the reflections on the time we have spent on Earth … so far.

Enjoy!

Have you written down any aspects of your life? Are you tempted to write your autobiography?

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28 Comments

Total Comments: 28
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    Autobiography are such odd sort of belated diaries of one’s life. We are the lead role in our own story. It is so easy to get what other people said or the motivation behind what they did so very wrong.
    Autobiographies can really hurt other people and the author needs to be so careful what they write and how they write it.
    Having heard many people speak at funerals and make a multitude of mistakes with names and events I really suggest they are well edited autobiographies and are checked by someone who lived on the same time stream.

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    The only people who *should* write autobiographies are those who have experienced incredible, extraordinary lives. They are few and far between. Most people’s lives are just very dull and humdrum.

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      I totally disagree. I have been down this trail and its is very beneficial for burying old crap that comes up to haunt us from time to time.
      I recently re read the story of an estranged uncle and OK he was just a normal bloke with a normal family and normal career but it clarified stuff that happened in my family history that I didn’t know and I am so grateful that he and his daughter took the effort to sit down and write about it so it could be passed on. So now I’m up to 9000 words and still going, every day or so I find another matter that I recall and think maybe my grandchildren and their children will find this interesting or even benefit from it.

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      I disagree too. I was born in a different Country, lived through the second world war as a child and came here as a young man. My children have an inkling of my past but grand and great grand children would not have a clue. You don’t have to write things that hurt people and I have been blessed with a fortunate life. It is for your family you do this not for the general public. Mind you at 85 I better hurry up and get stuck into it.

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      I can’t agree with you KAL. Jane Austen would have led a very ho hum life with many restrictions on her because of her gender and lack of money. Same with the Bronte sisters, but aren’t their lives fascinating to read about now.

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      Triss – they knew how to write and their stories weren’t ever dull.

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      Stemming from a privileged social group, I’d hesitate to say their lives were ho hum and restricted…. now if they wuz a factory girl….

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    Despite once being a secretary, I cannot write. But I’ve taken photos all my life and collected postcards, receipts, airplane tickets, menus and all the paraphernalia you gather when you travel. I’ve got pictures of jumpers and scarves I’ve knitted and dresses I made A couple of years ago I scanned all these items and store them on my computer. It’s a great visual record of my life, friends, experiences and travels. I’ve got photos taken by my grandparents and even photos of my great grandparents and their houses. If you can’t write, think about keeping a visual record. Your kids will love seeing pictures of you as a kid.

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      You cant write eh, except you have taken the time and effort to very effectively write 100 words to describe the material you have on hand that really should be passed on to your extended family. I hate to say it but you sound lazy! Use this small entry as a start, write 100 words every day, you will be amazed at how enthusiastic you will be come when the memories start flooding in. Do it — now!

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      Thanks – I will

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      V1K1 I think photo albums are a wonderful visual record of a person’s life – especially when someone has taken the time to write what they are of next to each photograph.

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      Ian Fleming set himself the task of writing 1500 words a day, then it was all wine and roses…

  4. 0
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    This says it all – “My philosophy is if you can read, you can write,”. Oh Lord! Sorry, Peter, but that is simply not true!! I haven’t read this autobiography, so it is possible Peter really is a writer, but such a claim is so cringeworthy to any professional writer [or poet for that matter] that I just had to comment!

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      Well you seem to have developed a fine sense of negativity there.
      Perhaps you could have a think and tell us about where that originated. “Professional writers” I say bah humbug. Some of the best reading has come from the battlers and no-hopers in society who suddenly decided they needed to tell their story.

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      Hi Infinityoz.
      I respectfully take issue with your ‘cringeworthy’ comment. You state that any professional writer [or poet for that matter] would describe as cringeworthy; the philosophy, “if you can read you can write”.

      That is quite a statement. Are you really sure that you are sufficiently familiar with every professional writer that every one of them would so describe the philosophy? Do you have evidence to make such a statement?

      Peter claims that he is able to write his autobiography. He also wrote, “I wanted this to be my story in my words”. Accordingly, he does not claim nor need the skills of professional writers. By definition, they make a living out of writing, whereas, autobiography writers can only write one autobiography.

      If you have written your autobiography or are a professional writer you may be (in your view), qualified to describe his philosophy as cringeworthy and can defend your statement. If so, please speak up.

  5. 0
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    Thanks for this story. How sad to think that some consider that ‘most people’s lives are very dull and humdrum’. I love reading the life stories of ‘ordinary people’. To my mind, every person’s life is different; varied by their age, the fortunes that befall them, where they live and during what era they live; also by the lives that cross paths with them… and so many other factors. And with the further passage of time, even more precious. “Write on!” I say. No, I haven’t written my autobiography, but perhaps I will, one day, when I have enough time. Still so busy living this amazing, but quite ordinary life.

    At the end of the day, what we write about is how it was from our perspective. If others disagree, they can always write their own truth rather than whinge about what they read. If the story is clearly going to hurt someone who doesn’t deserve it, then it should still be written – for it’s cathartic and ‘setting the record down’ value, but maybe, left on the home shelf for later generations to find. If only my ancestors had, I would have known so much more.

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      It can be very much the case that ‘ordinary people’ lead extraordinary lives without thinking it is so.

      Look at some of the stuff that comes out nowadays about childhoods and such – some of it amazing.

  6. 0
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    Well done Peter! It is incredibly hard to commit your innermost thoughts and your life experiences to paper where it may be read by all and sundry as well as your family. Much more intimidating and personally revealing than writing fiction. Editing the story to reflect others’ recall? Hmmmm … not sure. Maybe to check dates and other factual content but otherwise it should be true to the writers experience.

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    Too late – I’ve done mine, and I always say to people that their descendants will want to know who and what they were, and will learn not only from what you write, but the way you write it. It started off when I started to look at family history – and came up against brick walls due to people dying early. For instance I hardly knew my grandfathers, and was trying to find out about one’s WW I record. It seems that not only did he sign up with a four digit number in 2 Battalion, AIF, but worked in the tunnels under Messines (Hill 60) with the 3rd Canadian Tunneling Company, was wounded twice, but stayed on until the final call as a battalion runner – a very dangerous occupation.

    Even my father’s war record was misty…. but I managed to dig up a few things… including that he was a jump master at the Nadzab airborne drop and did aerial resupply over the Owen Stanleys.

    Casual heroes all, and none ever made any claim to greatness.

    As for me – some say I’ve lead an interesting life – I say it was hard and difficult at times, and often lonely.

    But your descendants will one day want to know…. perhaps this is one way of avoiding the current destruction of the family as a social unit, with all the devastation of runaway brides and takeaway children and throwaway marriages.

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    I’m a short story writer and I’m putting together a collection just for my grandkids – some of them autobiographical (like being evacuated from London because our house was bombed), some of them based on a random thing I heard or read, some of them that I think they’ll like because they’re amusing. Nothing hurtful, unless you’re the German bomber who wrecked our house and I dare say he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

  9. 0
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    I am currently working on mine, mainly to leave for my children. I have not tried to cover everything, but picked out several important times and written about them, their effect on me and – or the family. Once I got started, it was amazing how much I remembered.

  10. 0
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    I started writing Episodes in my life after my wife died in 2005. So far I have 50 episodes completed, 50 more as bullet points for further description and headings for another 150. After reading through the first 50 Episodes, I decided to change the names and edit some details to make it a Novel. The title “A Fool’s Journey” comes to mind. It has been a wonderful journey of reflection on my life since I was 4.


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