I've learned that when a person starts thinking about telling their life story, they tend to overthink it. They get caught up in worrying about things such as what others will think and who would publish it. The whole thought process results in paralysis so they can't even figure out how to get started. But if you do your thinking in a more focused way, and then follow it up with specific actions, you'll have your completed pages done before you know it! Here's how to get going.
Who is the Book For?
Before sitting down at your desk, decide who you are writing for. Are you writing for a wider audience (the general public)? Are you writing for your children and grandchildren? Answering this question will take many concerns off your plate from the very beginning. For instance, if you are writing only for family members, your writing style can be more intimate and informal, almost as though you are writing them a letter. You also wouldn't have to worry about getting an agent or attracting a publishing house because you know you'll either print the book yourself or have a self-publishing company produce a handful of finished books for you.
If you are writing for a wider audience you will have much more to deliver in terms of story, action and writing style. But let's keep this on the back burner for now and only think in terms of one thing: you know you have to write well. The rest you can worry about when the book is done.
What Story or Stories Do You Want to Tell?
You don't have to do the David Copperfield thing and go all the way back to "I am born." Contrary to popular belief, real life doesn't always make for interesting writing. So instead of going the James Frey route and embellishing, as he did with "A Million Little Pieces" (and you see where that got him!), focus instead on the great stories that have happened to you. I've heard from many people who desire to tell the story of their World War II experiences. They can do whole books just on that subject. There's no need to do more unless you have more to say.
Joan Didion's memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking", is all about her grieving after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It is a beautiful example of what can be done by examining just a small portion of your life. Likewise, Maya Angelou covered her life experiences in more than one book. So you don't have to write down everything in one place. What story are your burning to tell right now? Start there!
Skip the Writing Part--For Now
This may seem counter-intuitive to your intent to write a book, but if putting down that first word or sentence is too hard, you may find it easier to talk your book out of you first. All you have to do is give yourself a rough outline of what you want to talk about and then speak your stories into a recording device. You probably tell these stories anyway more often than you realize, which is probably why people say, "You should write that down". This will feel natural for you, especially if you enlist a friend or family member to interview you. That makes it easier than just lecturing into the air, plus the person you choose can help you to dig out certain details that you either have forgotten or just didn't think to bring out. For instance, a curious interviewer might ask "Who was with you when you stormed that beach in France?" or "What kind of car were you driving when you first saw Mom walking down the street?" or "What were you wearing when you met Martin Luther King Jr.?"
Even Mitch Albom did this. Even though I had read "Tuesdays with Morrie", it didn't hit me until I saw the television movie based on the book that he had recorded Morrie during each visit. He didn't have to work from notes or memory. I'm sure the tone of Morrie's voice was a constant inspiration for Mr. Albom to keep going and finish the book. I'm sure your family would love to have such a recording of you. The recording could be a gift itself, even if you never turned it into a book. But this is about creating a book so...
Shape Your Book
Now this part should be really fun. Once you have your rough draft, you can begin to shape your story like an artist with clay. Again, beware the impulse to embellish, but try to give things a beginning, a middle and an end. Keep your audience in mind. Remember, your writing doesn't have to be fancy. You just want to make sure you're being compelling, and that you're getting your message across. If you have any doubt about the way something is written, read it out loud. That way you'll be able to hear whether a phrase is awkward, if your sentences are too long or if you have fragments instead of complete sentences.
The best way to ensure that you'll complete your project is to set a deadline for yourself and honor it. Otherwise you may let it linger for months or years, working on it only a little at a time. Maybe you could tie your deadline to a family event such as a holiday or a reunion. Wouldn't that be the perfect place to present your completed memoir? If you seek to get your book published traditionally instead of doing it yourself, you may not have control over when you'll have a finished book in your hands, but don't let that stop you. Go as far as you can and present that work, even if it's a stack of photocopied pages or a box of cassette tapes to your loved ones. They will appreciate the gift--and your effort--for years to come.