An autodotbiographer's experience
How to write the story of your life
by Gillie Bowen
When Bryher’s mother, Peggy, died fourteen years ago, she realised how little she knew about her mother’s life. She wished she had asked more questions and now of course, it was too late. She began to think of a way she could help others to know more about their parents’ lives and the obvious conclusion was to encourage older people to write the story of their life.
As a journalist, Bryher was aware how hard this task would be for some. How could she make it easier to record all those memories? And so she set about creating Autodotbiography, a digital programme that is easy to follow, and which automatically creates a beautifully bound, hard-backed book entitled ‘My Life’.
My daughter, Victoria had heard about Bryher’s idea and urged me to give it a go. Now retired and living a quiet life in the Loire Valley in France, I was, to say the least, sceptical. I really didn’t think I had a story to tell. But then I started to think about a book my elderly uncle had managed to put together about his life before he died and even though the story was rather confused and clumsy, I learned so much from it about both his and my mother’s upbringing in Kenya. I was persuaded to give Autodotbiography a try and I want to tell you about the experience. As I say, much has been written about Bryher, but little about the clever programme she has come up with.
Firstly, let’s talk about the cost - always an important factor to us oldies! If you were capable of writing your own life story, then to self-publish your book would cost you many hundreds of pounds. If you are not a confident writer, then to hire a ghost-writer could cost you up to £30,000! But for just £250, Autodotbiography will lead you through the complicated process of putting together all those memories in a beautiful book to include lots of photos and other memorabilia in a very simple way. Additional copies of the book can be purchased for just £65. All you need is a computer - and perhaps a little help from a grandchild!
To start, you are advised to go through your photo albums and select all your favourite pictures of yourself, your family, your friends and even your pets. I thoroughly enjoyed this task, looking through albums that I hadn’t had out of the cupboard for years! Then you should get together the family birth and marriage certificates, your school reports (I was lucky: my mum had saved every one of my reports from the age of 3!) and awards and any other memorabilia you would like to include in your life story. You will need to scan these into your computer; if this sounds daunting, Bryher offers help and advice - or you could always rope in younger family members to do this for you! After that, you simply answer the questions and prompts the programme offers you. You can write as much or as little as you like – or skip a question entirely if you don’t want its answer included in the book.
The programme will take your through your birth, your family history to include your ancestors, your parents and siblings and then move on to your childhood. I realised I didn’t actually know much about my grandparents or their parents and I enjoyed doing a little research here – now so easy, thanks to Ancestory.com. Childhood memories came flooding back as I was prompted to write about my early life; where we had lived, my first pets, my favourite toys – things I had not thought about for decades!
From there you will tell the story of your education, from your first nursery school, through to primary and secondary education. Memories of teachers I had loved and those that I had hated came crowding back; exams passed and failed, childish victories at sport and ‘best friends’ all competed for space in the book! I wrote enthusiastically about my family life; the brother whom I hero-worshipped, special Christmases and birthdays suddenly so fresh in my mind.
Next comes the story of growing up; those difficult teenage years and that first broken heart. As I wrote, I could feel the pain all over again! Moving on, I remembered other loves and the romance that led to my happy marriage. It seemed like yesterday. And then, of course, I wrote about the birth and childhood of my three beautiful daughters; living it all again prompted me to remember just how much they have meant to me over the years.
It was fascinating to re-trace my career moves throughout my working life and what led me to different chapters in my life. I found myself revealing my inner-most thoughts at some stages in the book, simply because of the clever prompts and questions the programme asks.
The book is interspersed with anecdotes about things that make you happy: your favourite music, places, food, people, films, books, flowers and clothes. This really got me thinking; it is so easy to forget about all the wonderful things in life that bring us such pleasure. There are also opportunities to use lots of lovely quotations, which add that professional touch to your book, if you think they are appropriate.
The result – well, my book has 285 pages, lots of black and white and colour photographs, my school reports and precious certificates, letters from my ‘babies’ when I was in hospital and lots of other silly things which I hope will make future generations smile. It took me three months to write (the programme actually allows you to take up to a year) and I loved every minute of it; I found myself spending hours each day on this pleasurable task.
What do the family think? My three daughters and their families – I have seven grandchildren – have all visited me here in France this summer since ‘My Life’ was published. My eldest granddaughter, now 16, was fascinated by my school years and read those chapters in depth. She seemed genuinely interested in how much the system had changed over the past sixty years. I couldn’t help thinking about what her children will say when they read the book at the same age! Of course, the younger grandchildren loved all the pictures of their parents in the book and – even more important – the photos of themselves. My daughters took turns to dip into the book – it was seldom left unread. At one stage, I heard them squabbling over some of my ‘favourite things’ – gifts that they claimed I had attributed to the wrong child! At the same time, they were quite obviously engrossed in certain chapters and perhaps even a little embarrassed by my forthright accounts of my younger life. I suspect these are being inwardly digested and I await further discussion with interest. Now they are squabbling over who should look after the book for future generations. Perhaps I will order another two copies to solve that small problem…