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A Winning Way to Get Started Writing Your Life Story

Most first novels are at core autobiographical. Want to write yours?

(c) agencyby
Source: (c) agencyby

When one of my sons was in high school he wanted to apply for a summer fellowship. Time ran out, and now it was the last night before the application was due. By the time he'd finished his homework, he was too tired to write the personal essay on the application. I was determined to make sure he accomplished the dread deed, and at the same time we both were determined to avoid slipping into an argument. What to do?

Fortunately, we came up with a winning strategy for autobiographical writing.

Before I became a psychologist, I'd been an English teacher. I scratched the teacher part of my brain to find a way to get my son going on the writing project.

"Here's the deal," I suggested. "Sit down on your bed, and close your eyes. I'll sit at your computer to be your secretary. I'm going to ask you questions. I'll then type exactly what you say in response to my questions. When we're done, you'll have the first draft of an essay."

My son reluctantly agreed, and then gradually got into the project as the questions flowed. He was too tired to do much editing after we were done, but he was able to complete the application with at least something in the space for the personal essay.

The outcome? My son not only was one of the 25 winners of the fellowship, but he also was later told by one of the judges choosing the fellowship winners that his essay was far and away the best that they'd received.

Here goes the questions. Hopefully they will work as well for you to get started on your writing project as they did for my son.

To get started, you can ask the questions to yourself, or ask a friend to read them one by one to you, keeping your eyes closed, and recording your answers.

With your eyes closed, allow an image to come up of a moment or situation in which you felt great distress.

Verbalize where you were at the time. Include details of what you could see, hear and feel.

What did you want? What feeling came up as you realized that you were having trouble making that happen?

Who else was there? What details do you notice about them and how they looked to you? What did they want? What did they say or do?

What did you think next? Do next?

How did the event end?

What's the last detail you noticed, or a conclusion that comes to mind now as you recall that incident?

Looking back at what you have written, notice the role you have played. Do you tend toward being the hero? Feeling helpless or done to? A leader? A follower? Writing autobiography teaches you about yourself, setting you up to make alternative future choices.

Happy writing.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent projects are a website that teaches the skills for marriage success,, and Prescriptions Without Pills.

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