A Unique Estate Planning Idea: How to Write Your Memoir

Anyone can turn their life experiences into a legacy worth remembering.

(Image credit: Pavel Kolotenko)

Do you sometimes feel like your life isn’t valuable? Everyone does at one point or another. I’ve interviewed all kinds of impressive people about their legacies, and you know the most-common response I get? “My life isn’t that interesting.” Some of these people are at the top of their fields and doing incredible work in philanthropy. By all accounts they’re extraordinary, but they don’t always view themselves that way.

It seems that life has an insidious way of squeezing the uniqueness out of us. Between learning to blend in with the other students at school, jumping from career to career, paying off debts, relocating away from family and friends, and feeling like a failure when relationships or marriages don’t work out, life can bruise even the best of us.

The truth is your life has great meaning – even if you don’t think you’ve done anything inspiring. You don’t need to be a celebrity or travel the world to be interesting. What you need is the right storytelling capabilities.

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Writing down or recording the stories of your life’s defining moments can help you realize your own worth and pass along meaning to the people important to you. Your children or grandchildren want to know about you. Your stories and the lessons you’ve learned throughout your life become an inspiration for them. Or maybe you want to help someone you love record their life stories, for their benefit or your own.

How to Mine for an Awesome Story

Let’s say you’re interviewing your grandfather and you ask him how much he loves his wife. He says, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I love her more than the sun and moon and stars.”

“OK,” you say… “But, can you tell me a specific story about how much you love her?”

He thinks for a moment and then tells you about how he loves looking into her eyes and how when he first met her, she danced like a goddess. This is getting a little better. But, it’s still not specific enough.

So, you push him. The next question you ask is, “What is one of the hardest experiences you ever went through with Grandma?”

He ponders for a full minute and says, “When I first started my business, your grandmother sacrificed so much. She worked 80-hour weeks and took the kids to school. And finally, when things were starting to look up and I was bringing in enough money that she could finally take a break, my business partner stole everything and left us in debt. It was devastating. I can’t believe she stood by me.”

All right, this is turning into a pretty good premise for a story, but it’s not there yet.

Next, you ask him: “Is there a specific moment during that time that stands out to you? Something that made you love her even more?”

He chokes back the tears and says, “It was that night that I told her my partner had stolen all of the money. I had been out all night drinking because I couldn’t face her. Finally, I walked in the door at 1 a.m. when I thought she’d be asleep. She was at the kitchen table waiting for me. She looked so tired. She asked me what was wrong. I told her. She smiled and said, ‘You did it once. You can do it again. And this time, it’ll be faster because you don’t have that crook weighing you down!’… In that moment, I loved her more than anything.”

Jackpot! This is an awesome story.

Your life is full of awesome stories like this. Think about turning points in your life. Think about lessons you’ve learned. Think about what it was like growing up. These stories can be so significant for your family because it’s a part of their identity and helps them understand their own lives better.

What Makes Your Experiences Interesting?

There are different ways of thinking about your own life stories. The following principles will help you extract the most intriguing parts and connect with your audience. (Rather than boring them with meandering details.)

Of course, you may want to journal about your life or interview loved ones and spend hours discussing the details of their lives to find the gold. This can be very therapeutic and bond you with your loved ones. But, if you’re interested in capturing your stories to be passed on as either a video, book or other work, the following principles will keep you on track:

Principle 1: You Are the Illustration

A story is only important if it’s applicable to others. So, try to pull out the universal themes. Think of the story as an illustration of a particular theme. Best-selling author and memoir expert Marion Roach Smith has a simple template for coming up with the universal theme and illustration. She recommends you fill in two blanks in this sentence:

This story is about ______________ and the illustration is __________________.

Be specific. It shouldn’t be something broad like: This story is about hardship and the illustration is my upbringing. That’s too broad.

It should be something like: This story is about poverty being a mindset, and the illustration is the time I went to the store with my father and felt embarrassed.

Or the story is about integrity and the illustration is when my mother drove 200 miles to return a woman’s coat that she mistakenly took.

Principle 2: Pick Out Tiny Details

Think about a turning point in the story or a significant moment. What small details jump out at you? In order for the details to have the most impact, they must be:

  • Small
  • Unusual
  • The first time I’ve ever heard it
  • Narrow or relating to the specific event

So, for example, if I was telling a story about how I got my first real job, I might zone in on the detail of feeling self-conscious and unsophisticated during the interview because I wore a pink blouse with ruffles all over the front. This small detail gives you a better picture of me and makes the story interesting because this is the first time you’ve ever heard of a girl showing up to an interview with a ruffle blouse. If you add in several details like this, your stories will have more depth.

Principle 3: The First 10 Seconds Should Hook You

Pay close attention to how a story starts. Your first line is crucial. If your audience isn’t hooked at the beginning, they’ll be bored stiff by the five-minute mark—when the story picks up. Like a headline in an article, that initial “hook” is really important.

People have a tendency to meander or take some time to get into a story. They want to give you the background details first or need to collect their thoughts. The best advice I’ve heard from my friend and best-selling memoir writer is to “get in at the last possible moment and get out as soon as possible.” When you’re thinking about a story, pay attention to when would be a good time to start the story. Always think of a great first line.

The purpose of the first line is to hook you, build in some mystery, and get your audience to focus on hearing the story because they’re excited to know what’s coming up. It sets the tone for the entire story.

For example, let’s say you want to tell someone about the time you jumped off the roof as a child and broke your leg.

If you haven’t thought through how you’re going to tell the story, it’ll probably start off pretty boring. Something like, “When I was a kid I loved playing outside.” This statement is mundane and could apply to millions of other people. It doesn’t get me excited and I don’t think this story is going to be anything special.

Instead, if you start the story with the line, “If you really want to tick off your father, jump off the roof.”

All of a sudden, your audience wants to hear more. It’s playful, it’s clever and they know they’re in for a good time.

Principle 4: It Must Be Intriguing the Entire Time

Often people are not aware of what is interesting about their lives. So, when I say your story must be intriguing, I’m not saying that it has to be some crazy adventure or death-defying quest. It can be something simple and seemingly mundane on the surface. This is why it’s so important that you explore topics before you capture the story – you can do this by talking with friends or family or writing/journaling on your own.

Because you may need some help picking out what is interesting about your life or to pull out the details that make your stories pop, I love the idea of family members interviewing each other about their lives. It’s also a great time to bond and connect deeply.

To learn more about the benefits of stories as a way to spread wisdom, check out this video.

Magic in the Mundane

Your stories are unique to you, and others care about them because it helps them to understand their own lives. When they listen to you and see things from your perspective, a whole world can open up. You might think your epiphany at the water cooler is insignificant, but that insight could be the catalyst for something greater.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Laura A. Roser
Founder and CEO, Paragon Road

Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the leading authority in meaning legacy planning (passing on non-financial assets, such as values, wisdom and beliefs). For more information about legacy planning, visit www.paragonroad.com.