WHAT IS A PERSONAL HISTORY, what makes it different from an autobiography or memoir, and why would it be worth your time to create one?
In its simplest form, a personal history could be comprised of a list of the places you’ve lived, the schools you’ve attended, the jobs you’ve held, or major milestones — birth, marriages, divorces, children, deaths of those close to you, etc.
In its fuller form, a narrated personal history would include some of these elements, along with brief descriptions, anecdotes, and stories about your life experiences and family traditions. In addition to writing, a personal history may also include photos and audio or video recordings of you telling your stories.
So what’s the difference?
Memoir, autobiography, and personal history are similar in that they are all forms of life writing, author and subject are one and the same, and they are written in first person. But there are subtle (and not so subtle) differences between them.
In autobiography, your intent is to capture the entirety of your life, from birth to the present, focusing on achievements and accuracy of events, rather than your perceptions and thoughts about your life stories. An autobiography attempts to present a whole picture of where you came from and who you are.
Memoir is a more focused form of life writing in which you capture a specific theme or themes during a particular time of life. Though a memoir can span a brief period of time or many years, it’s always a form of reflection in which you view past events and decisions through the lens of the present. Memoir invites a deeper form of contemplation and expanded narrative through the use of scene, dialogue, and other creative writing techniques.
In a 2003 article on memoir in The Guardian, Ian Jack wrote:
The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good. . . .What marks the difference between . . . memoir and autobiography, is that old division in writing between showing and telling.
A personal history falls somewhere between memoir and autobiography, though perhaps closer to autobiography in the life-writing spectrum. You could think of a personal history as an informal autobiography, or a book of your life’s highlights. And while a memoir or autobiography is usually written with the intention to publish widely, a personal history is published less formally (could be in a simple binder, for example), and with a limited distribution to family and friends.
Seven reasons to start writing your personal history now
- There is no downside to having a written record of your life. If you are older, you have the advantage of being able to write down most of your story. If you are younger, you can write about the events of your life so far and then continue to complete the story as you go.
- A personal history doesn’t have to have any specific structure or order. There are no rules — you can include or omit whatever you choose.
- You don’t have to call yourself a “writer” or know much about creative writing techniques to write a personal history. You don’t need to worry about spelling and grammar. And you don’t need to be concerned about whether your stories are “interesting” enough. Your children and grandchildren or other members of your family will love anything that gives them a better picture of your life.
- You can write your history in bits and pieces and distribute however and whenever you want, or wait until you have a finished book. You are the one who decides.
- The process of reflecting on, organizing, and writing about your life experiences can help you heal past wounds, improve cognitive function, and provide a sense of coherence and peace about your past.
- Creating a personal history is an enjoyable activity.
- Finally and most importantly, a record of your life is a gift to those who come after you. It provides context for and gives voice to your experiences within the time you lived. And your family will cherish this gift for generations to come.
Convinced? Here’s how to get started
Getting started writing a personal history is as simple as beginning with those lists I mentioned at the top of this article.
For example, write a list of all the places you’ve lived or all the schools you went to. Then, describe each place (or at least the most memorable ones), and tell an anecdote about something that happened there. Have fun with it and let the memories emerge naturally.
Instead of places you’ve lived, you could start with your place and date of birth and any family stories about your birth. Write about your siblings and what life was like in your family.
You could record a few of your favorite childhood memories. Or open a photo album and reminisce about some of the events depicted in the photos.
As you can see, there’s no right or wrong way to go about creating a personal history. What you capture is up to you.
The point is to not put it off for a future date. Get started today. Your family will be forever grateful.