Start Now to Write Life Stories
Pick a prompt today, and dive right in.
Seven Wonders of the World
We all know the ancient list of Wonder of the World.
What are your wonders of the world – your personal list of important, interesting, beautiful or meaningful places?
What are they and what do they mean to you? Each location on your personal list has the potential to be a story of its own.
- When did you first visit there?
- How often have you visited?
- When were you there last?
- Is it somewhere you can go regularly or have you only been there once?
- Have you ever told anyone about the time you have spent in one of your special places?
Lost Your Wallet?
Imaging that when you were a high school student, you lost your purse or wallet. It was never found and you soon forgot about it.
Your school building was recently remodeled and your lost wallet or purse was found when a wall was torn down.
You are now looking through it puzzling over the contents. What memories do the items bring back? Do some of the items you see make you wonder why you were carrying them with you?
You can read about a purse that was recently found here https://twitter.com/i/events/1578840536399679489
“What we could have, should have, or would have done—these kinds of thoughts follow an if-then logic. But we’re also drawn to alternative selves that hover on the edge of sense.” Joshua Rothman, What If You Could Do It All Over? The New Yorker, December 21, 2020.
Take some time to read Joshua Rothman’s observations on live and the twists and turns that brought you where you are now. Any deviation could have resulted in a different outcome and a different life.
Look back and consider your turning points. Write about one or more points and how your life today is a result of the turns you made years ago.
My Favorite (fill in the blank)
My favorite (home, garden, vehicle, vacation) was ___________________________
My special memory is _____________________________.
Share some photographs of ___________________________.
Consider asking others who remember your favorite to write a few words to include with your story.
Start with a List
Start with a blank page, either paper or word processing page. List every memory of your life that comes to mind. Don’t stop to think about each one, just write enough, a few words or sentence, so that you identify it. Keep going as long as you can recording as many memories as possible. Don’t censor yourself while making the list. No one else is going to see it. You are just brainstorming at this point and the more you can remember and get down on your list the better. Save the list to refer back to. Add to it as new memories come to mind.
Now pick the memory that calls loudest to you and write your story about it with detail and enthusiasm. Keep returning to your list, looking for what memories calls to be written up next.
Here’s more details on this method of writing a memoir starting with a list from Cyndy Etler. Her plan steps you through generating a long lists of prompts specific to your life. She provides guidance on choosing a prompt to start writing and then keep writing.
Cyndy Etler is the author of The Dead Inside a YA memoir about her experiences in an adolescent treatment program.
Listen to Others Stories
Listening to others life stories can be a great way to get ideas for stories you might write about your own life. It also helps to hear how people look back at their own lives and put them into perspective.
Here are some places you can find personal stories:
- Follow The Moth on public radio or listen to stories on podcasts or on the website .
- StoryCorps allows you to record a memory from your life to be stored in the Library of Congress. You can listen to others stories on public radio and on their podcast or website.
Tangible Things You Keep
What are the tangible things in your life you value most? Are there objects in your clutter that matter to you?
What is the story behind one thing you own that means more than its monetary worth?
What Objects Bring You Comfort? is a New York Times article to read and a good place to find prompts.
Family life and traditions
Family life and traditions are precious to us. Here are some ways to start a story.
- My family celebrates birthdays by . . .
- We always had a special dinner on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Easter, and other special days. We enjoyed . . .
- As I child, I was assigned chores which included . . .
- I remember the family values that my parents shared . . .
- My favorite family tradition is . . .
- We had special names for our grandparents, aunts, and uncles which were . . .
Beautiful Things Seen
@ClaraLilyRose shared a Tweet “Beautiful things seen stay with you forever” along with an image of a lake and forest.
Think of some beautiful places you’ve seen and write a description of what you saw and what it meant to you at the time. End by telling us what your experience brings to you today.
In the News
Do you remember a news story that changed your views or influenced your life?
- When “I like Ike” was a slogan.
- When protests of the Vietnam War were going on?
- When the first men landed on the Moon?
- When the first atom bombs were dropped?
- Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?
Write a stories about things that were covered in the news. Tell us where you were at the time. Did you know anyone who participated in the event? Did something you read about in the news change your life’s trajectory?
Quick List – Something Unexpected
Take five minutes and write down three to five times in your life when something unexpected happened that caused a change in your plans. Don’t “think” as you write the list. Just make it as quickly as you can. List everything that comes to your mind without evaluating it.
It could be anything, large or small, that caused you to see a new path forward or influenced you:
- a car accident
- an unexpected job offer
- wining an prize or award
- a sudden death
- a time when you read a book or saw a movie that caught you off guard
- a friend’s reaction
- meeting a new person
- getting fired
- an old friend getting in touch after many years
Pick one of these times and explain the changes in your life that resulted. Write a story about how it happened and how it influenced you.
Storytelling through Photography
Photographs help you recall the times of your life and also help you share those stories. Look back through your images for story ideas.
Share the photos you find with friends who were with you and compare your memories. You’ll be surprised at the memories that will surface when you share your photos.
Digital Photography School provides some tips for using photos in your stories.
What Do You Carry
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a hard book to read about individual soldiers in Vietnam and they items they carried with them. The book is described on Amazon (available as paperback, Kindle and audio) as follows:
One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as “a work of fiction,” defying the conscientious reader’s need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the twenty-two short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own.
You can read The Things They Carried online at Kentucky Skills Lesson Bank.
Consider some of the things you’ve kept from childhood, things you have on the shelf or in a box where you take them out and look at now and then. What have you packed up and taken with you every time you moved? What small item do you carry in your pocket. Write about your relationship to the item, the person who gave it to you and what memories it brings back to you when you hold it.
Your Last Tweet
What if you were given a chance to write your last Tweet? What message would you left the world?
Write a last Tweet now. You have 280 characters to let us know how you sum up your life. Or use your characters to leave us with a joke.
Here’s where you can read other folks would leave as their last Tweet.
What’s your favorite mode of transportation: car, train, airplane, bike or . . .
Start this life story with one of these phrases:
- My first car was a . . .
- I once went on a long bike ride . . .
- My favorite way to travel is . . .
- We traveled across the country on a train . .
Be sure to include:
- Special memories of who you traveled with
- Photographs, postcards or letters you wrote while traveling
Writing about your first car, include:
- Memories of learning to drive, who taught you, what was something funny that happened
- School driving class
- Taking the driver’s license test and test drive
- Your first time driving alone
- Cost of fuel, did you pump your own gas?
Who are you today?
Paul Wallace shows us an interesting way to write a list essay describing who you are today. Everyday, you could write a list essay describing who you are and every day it would be different. It would likely be different if you wrote one many times a day, Another Tweeter added a line describing themselves.
Write a story about your childhood to read to you grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Share an experience from your childhood. Retell a story your parents shared with you. It’s a chance to share some family history with the next generation.
- What do you remember about your first day in school?
- How did your family come to live in this state/city/house?
- What was your first plane fight like?
- What experiences did you have at summer camps?
- Describe your favorite toy or game growing up?
Sports I like
Participate in sports? Sports fan? Here are a couple ways to start your next life story. Tell us why you like the sport and some of your favorite memories.
- The sports I really like to play include . . .
- The sports I really like to watch are . . .
- The sport I wish I’d learn to play . . .
- Sports my kids play . . .
- Sports I’ve taught my kids or grandkids . . .
Cast Iron Frying Pan
Look around your house and choose an item that has been with you for a long time. Write a story from the object’s perspective.
The Washington Post published some examples of writing stories based on a cast iron frying pan that had been part of the family.
Protests & Public Service
Think back over your life and the things that mattered to you enough that you supported the cause.
- Have you ever joined a protest march? Did you protest the Vietnam war? Against police violence such as the March on Washington, Rodney King protests or Black Lives Matter?
- Have you participated in events to raise funds for causes, for example, the Ice Bucket Challenge, March of Dimes, Race for the Cure, Big Brothers?
- Did you ever volunteer for the Peace Core, American Red Cross, a local food pantry or a volunteer fire department? Lead a Girl or Boy Scout Troop or Camp Fire USA group?
- What rewards did you find in the work? Would you do it again? Recommend serving as a volunteer to others?
- Have you been active in political party activities? Have you gone door to door for a candidate or collected signatures for a recall election? Attended a convention?
- Did you ever serve in an elected office? A city counsel or assembly, a school or hospital board? Was it rewarding or frustrating? What is something you accomplished or failed to accomplish when in an elected position.?
Remember a time when someone you trusted let you down.
It could be a minor occasion such as forgetting to pick you up at the airport or an emotionally damaging event when someone you counted on did not stand up for you.
How did you process and recover from the event?
Did your relationship survive? If so, how did you both repair it?
Pick a technology that’s changed in your lifetime:
- Telephone service and devices
- Digital Cameras
Did you see the change coming?
What difference has the change made for you?
Do you miss the old technology?
School Year Memories
Think back to your school years. Remember your teachers and coaches. What organizations and school activities were you involved with. Here are some questions that may suggest story ideas.
- Who was your favorite teacher in grade school, high school or college? Why? What did you learn from them, just the subject at hand or another life lesson?
- Did you ever get sent to the principal? Remember any of the other school staff: the lunchroom lady? the janitor?
- Do you remember grade school or high school graduations?
- Were you in band or in a singing group?
- Do you still have your school yearbooks? Take a look though them for reminders of old friends. Sometimes reading the notes with signatures at the back will spark a long lost memory.
- What sports did you participate in? Who was coaching: a teacher or another kid’s dad? Did you just learn the rules of the game or did they encourage you to learn sportsmanship and team participation as well?
- Did you join an after-school group, a sorority or fraternity? What were some of the group activities? Have you kept in touch with the friends you made in those groups?
Think back to your first “real” job.
- What was your first real job?
- What do you remember about it?
- What were you paid?
- Did it seem like a lot of money at the time?
- Did you save your earnings? were you saving for a special thing you wanted to buy? What was it?
- Or id you spend your earnings right away? What did you purchase?
- What was the best and worst thing you remember about working when you were young?
Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus
Did you ever hide your baby teeth under the pillow for the Tooth Fairy or write to Santa Claus at the North Pole?
Do you remember when you learned that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were not real people? Or learned that they were really your parents or caregiver? How did you feel when you learned this?
Did you keep the secret from the younger kids in the family?
What were some of the presents that Santa Claus brought you? What was your favorite present of all?
Weather or Acts of God
There are times when something unexpected happens and changes our plans. Think of times in your life when you had all your plans made for a trip or activity and something out of your control occurred that changed everything.
- Do you remember a time with a weather event changed your plans? A sudden wind storm, heavy rains, hurricane, tornado, flooding. What was the event and how did you contend with it? Did you reschedule? What did you do instead?
- Was your flight cancelled or did you miss a connection? Where were you going? What did you experience while you were missing out on the planned event.
- Were you involved in a car accident? Fall and break a leg?
Obits & More
- Write your ethical will. What life learnings, personal philosophies, mottos, and core values do you want to leave as legacy to your descendants? How did you learn these lessons or acquire these philosophies? Read about the history of ethical wills on Wikipedia.
- How exactly do you want to be remembered by friends and family? What have you accomplished that you’re most proud of, and how does it affect your legacy? What do wish you had done differently and does thinking of that bring thoughts of advice for others?
- Write your own obituary. Obituaries usually follow standard formats. An online search for “how to write an obituary” will bring up hundreds of tips and samples.
Small Things Matter
Many times we write about the big things that happened in our lives. The small things we do everyday are part of who we are. Think about some of the things that you did during the pandemic year. With the lock-down orders and limited or no travel, you may be thinking that nothing “big” happened. What were some of the small things that made up the year?
- Tell us about something that you accomplished in 2020-2021. How did you do it/ Did you plan to do it or was it spontaneous?
- Did you form a new habit? Take up a new hobby?
- Many stories have been in the newspapers about folks who started feeding and watching birds. Were you a bird watcher before the pandemic or did you start during the last year? What drew you to it?
- Did you take up a handcraft hobby like sewing, kitting or crochet? Was it new to you or something you did years ago and you took it up again. What are some of the things you made?
- Have you been reading more? What books? Which are your favorites you’ve read recently?
- Did you walk or bike more? Or some other outdoor activity?
- Did you adopt a cat, dog or other pet?
Winning or Losing
Sports, games, contests: these are all opportunities for winning and losing. We can learn lesson from both as we grow up and attend school and other activities. What are your memories that involve winning or losing?
- Ever won a contest, drawing or a prize. Share your story of wining.
- Write about how you overcame your disappointment at losing a game or contest.
- Do you remember being coached not to be a “poor” or “sore” loser?
- What advice that you received meant the most to you?
- How would you advise a young person to overcome losing an important event?
Travel can always be a source for stories about your life. We tend to remember trips more distinctly that everyday life. Here’s some prompts for writing about trips.
- Do you remember the first time you took a long trip with your parents? What are your memories of traveling away from home when you were young?
- Did you visit zoos or museums on school trips?
- What was it like the first time you traveled away from home for the first time?
- Have you traveled to foreign countries? What were some of your experiences along the way? Problems communicating? What were some of the sights you visited? What was most interesting to you about how people in other countries live.
- Write about a visit to an amusement park, Disneyland, Six Flags Parks. Was there a carousel in a park near you that you enjoyed as a child? Or took your children to visit?
Write about creative activities you enjoy such as instruments you learned to play. Did you sing in choir or chorus? What about craft activities such as woodworking, sewing, cooking, hand crafts. Or perhaps drawing or photography.
- Who taught you the skills?
- Have you passed these skills on to your children, nieces and nephews or others in the younger generation?
- Share some photos of your crafts.
- Are you using some of the crafts you learned now. Perhaps sewing your own clothes, building bird houses?
- Did something you learned when you were young lead to your life’s work?
Parents and Family Elders
Here’s a prompt for writing about your parents, aunts and uncles, or other family elders.
This prompt is an opportunity to provide advice to the next generation in the form of a story. Writing about life and family situations that you experienced is a way you can weave advice into a story so it is not consciously recognized as advice.
- Think of something your mother or father said regularly. Did one or both of them have short sayings or proverbs you heard them repeat? “Pick ’em up and put ’em down” was my father’s way of saying “Keep going and finish the project.”
- Tell us some of the sayings in your family and what the sayings meant to you.
- Does the saying come to your mind occasionally?
- Have you said it yourself?
- Have others around you started saying it?
In the News
News stories. Do you remember a news story that changed your views or influenced your life?
- Perhaps when “I like Ike” was a slogan.
- During the protests of the Vietnam War.
- When the first men landed on the Moon.
- When the first atom bombs were dropped.
- When President Kennedy was shot.
- The 9/11 attacks.
Books, Songs and Movies
Sometimes you hear a song or read a book at just the right time and it speaks to you and stays with you.
- Write about a book that made a difference in your life.
- Remember a song you heard at an important time that has stayed with you and brings memories every time you hear it.
- Was there a movie or play that presented you with a life lesson?
Presents and Gifts
Remember gifts that you have received:
- What was the most surprising present you ever received?
- What was the occasion, who was present at the time, what did the gift mean to you
- Do you still have it? Use it?
- What would you like to tell the gift giver now about how much it meant to you?
Now think about presents you have given to others:
- What was the most surprising gift you ever gave to another? Who was it?
- What was the occasion, who was present at the time, what did the gift mean to you and to them when they opened it?
- Do they still have it? Use it?
- What would you like to tell the person now about how much they mean to you then?
Read The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years from the Washington Post.
George P. Shultz’s article could be expanded so that each of his ten points could be an entire chapter. This is a good example of taking a theme, as Mr. Shultz chose trust, and collecting stories around that theme. As you review and sort the stories you have written, look for an underlying theme.
- the land where you or your family lived and your connection to it, the beauty of the seasons there and what the land means to you.
- center on your family life and things you learned from your parents and elders and how you applied those lessons in your life.
- your children and what you tried to teach them as they grew and how your family activities mirrored those ideas.
- your work life and the principles you brought to the profession.
Any of these, and others, could be a unifying element for organizing your life stories.
Friends in Your Life
Think of a friends in your life. Perhaps a friend you have not seen in many years. After you write the story, consider sharing it with your friend. It could spark them to write a story about you or invigorate your friendship.
- How did you meet?
- What were some of your experiences together?
- What experience stands out in your memory more than any other?
- Was that person there for you during a difficult time in your life?
- Were you able to be there for them when they really needed a friend?
- Write about ways they encouraged you to succeed or protected you from disappointment.
- Do you remember a special gift they gave you be it material or an emotional gift?
- Did they introduce you to someone who became special in your life?
Your Dream Team
Listing those people who helped you get to where you are today gives you a brainstorming tool for story prompts.
The list can bring people to mind you may want to thank for their assistance. MovingUp is a website that gives you a few quick prompts about family, friends, influences, places, work colleagues, and other sources of inspiration that assisted in your life and will aid you in constructing your list.
- Start by watching Bob McKinnon’s TedTalk.
- Read more about dream teams at MovingUp.
- Fill in your Dream Team form.
- Learning your Dream Team may help you identify important stories you want to write — or maybe not. But it will certainly highlight the people and events that influenced who you are today.
Starting Words “The time when …
Complete the sentence that starts with “The time when . .
Here are some examples to get you thinking.
- “I lost 50 pounds in 3 months and became a lean, mean, fighting machine.”
- “My mother stopped measuring my height on the kitchen door. Life Lesson Learned: I started to think about measuring myself.”
- “When my principal laughed at me and . . .”
- “I was invited to help write a book on recording audio books. I learned that other people in my field recognized and respected my knowledge and skills.”
- “I worked with __________________ (famous or special person).”
- “I finally understood my worth and life changed in these ways _____________________.”
- “I realized she was not for me.”
- “I froze in fear on the freeway.”
- “I wrote my sister’s obituary. The life lesson learned is that I can have a healthy relationship with my biggest fears.”
- “I moved to Alaska . . . ”
Describe yourself in six words. You can use six individual words or a short sentence.
I recently participated in a Zoom class that started with this prompt. I replied “California, Alaska, commercial fisherman, book publisher.”
You can be very inventive in few words. Be adventurous and give us a clue about your life story. Here are some examples I’ve heard.
- “Will I put the kettle on?”
- “Can you see me counting fingers.”
- “Orphans need not whiskey or cigarettes.”
- “Why did she marry the enemy?”
- “The fire ate 18 young women.”
- “Homeless cats dreaming of cities.”
- “You made me feel as though I matter.”
- “I’ve always wanted to be a professional recreationalist.”
- “Kansas mother institutionalized for life. Why?”
- “Family, food, forest, one lovely mess.”
- “Voices from the past speak again.”
- “Lost by plague, recovery by travel.”
- “Idaho is my dowager aunt with a story to tell.”
Names and Nicknames
Many people have a formal name as well as a shortened version or nickname.
- Do you know why you were given your formal name?
- What nicknames have you had?
- Who gave you your nicknames?
- What is the background for your nicknames?