Making your life’s story credible

A friend recently told me that her autobiography lies irretrievably scattered throughout the world in the multitude of personal letters she has written to loved ones and friends. Personal letters are, of course, a kind of autobiography, and they are invaluable when it comes to writing a formal account of a person’s life. For reasons I do not entirely understand, I began to save a carbon copy of all my letters, invariably written on a typewriter, immediately upon returning from my mission in 1957. It used to amaze me that mother-in-law would promptly answer any personal letter she received and thereupon drop it into the waste basket. Somehow it seemed unnatural to me to destroy the record of her friends and loved one’s lives so callously.

I think that as they approach old age, people ought to write their life’s story even if they don’t have letters and diaries on which to rely. Admittedly, such sources lend a degree of objectivity to their autobiography. Now that my own life’s story is finished, I sometimes find myself feeling vacant and purposeless about the whole process of collecting information about myself. But I continue to recognize the value of having contemplated my life at great length. While writing my life’s story, I could see trends, gather explanations, and understand my obsessions better. You could say that I was reviewing my life both subjectively and objectively at the same moment. I could recommend that process to others even if, as I say, they lack access to a detailed record of their past and must write a monograph rather than a book. However much or little they can assemble, either from retrieved documents or from critically examined memory, I think they will find a great value in trying to pass judgment on it. Taking note of one’s strengths certainly ought to be a part of writing an autobiography, but so should taking note of one’s weaknesses. As far as I am concerned, a mingling of those two qualities adds credibility to the account of a life, and a narrative about half a person, rather than the whole person, scarcely seems worth reading.


  1. You make me very glad I have always held onto correspondance- both in copies of my own and those I’ve received.

    It would seem, too, that blogging is a modern equivelent or addendum of what was once letter-writing… At least, if we are honest, and if we periodically print out what we write.

  2. I want to put a plug in for any amount of journal writing you do. When my grandmother died, my sister gathered up all the odds and ends of notebooks and scraps of papers on which my grandma had kept a journal. It’s a small portion of her life – maybe a cumulative of a few months at various points in her life, but it’s amazing how much more I’ve learned about my grandma, her thoughts and attitudes and just the day to day work that she did. I haven’t kept a journal in years, but I write a “life update” email every couple of months to friends and family and I save those in a binder.

  3. When my sister-in-law went away to school at BYU, I wrote letters to her frequently. I was a little shocked when she came home a year later and handed me the entire stack. She thought I’d want to have them. I think I still do have them, but I’m not sure where.

    I have emails from a good friend who died all backed up somewhere too. I’m still not ready to read through them.

  4. I had my parents save all of my letters from my mission and will always be grateful for that. When I compare these letters to the off-and-on journal that I kept I came to realize that there was a vast difference between the two. In the letters I accentuated the postitive, the spiritual, the truly meaningful experiences and emotions that I had. My journal was too full of self doubt, negative experiences, feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. A real downer to read. I’m not exactly sure why this is. The truth of my experience on my mission is probably a combination of both. However my memories always go back to the positive (the letters) and are only forced into the negative when I read my journal. Anyone have a similar experience?

  5. There is also a form of immortality in printed memories, some hope that we will not be entirely dependent upon others’ attentions for our persistence in the material world. I often think this is what Joseph Smith was trying to get at with his Book of the Law of the Lord or his reports of Adam’s Book of Remembrance or the collections of Patriarchal Blessing transcriptions. Revisiting correspondence with my father shortly before he died has been occasionally important to me, recovering both of us from that period.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I kept a detailed journal of my mission, and kept it up for a while when I came home. Then the press of school derailed that project.

    On my mission I saved all the letters I received and occasionally sent them home in boxes. But when I got home, it was a mountain of correspondence. So I ditched most of it, and just kept a few key pieces.

    These days whenever I write a letter to my mother and family (via group e-mail) I print out a copy and put it in a binder. Not as introspective as a journal, but at least this is something I will actually do.

    One day I hope to write my life story, for my kids if nothing else. I would love to have such a document from my now long-deceased father.

  7. I was going over my father’s life story and realized that he had a very full life, but parts of it (parts I knew were true) were hard to believe. Kind of like my own. I may have buried three children, but if I were a fictional character, I’d be sent back for another edit because that just isn’t believable.

    I’m wondering about things like that, and how to make yourself into someone whose story would be credible if it were fiction.

    And I wonder if anyone will find any value in my journals and papers.

  8. ElouiseBell says:

    Levi, thanks for those promptings. One of our colleagues (I think it was Bert Wilson) spoke of the difference between his faithfully written missionary journal and the weekly letters he wrote his mother (who was equally faithful about keeping them).The letters were richer, funnier, more textured, more personal. . . more everything, I guess.

    There’s one wonderful advantage to letter-writing or journal-keeping, particularly for those who have offspring. Most good practices need to have some regularity to be worthwhile. Exercising once a month doesn’t, alas, burn much flab. Flossing once each birthday is a waste of wax. But even the briefest journal entries can have great value, especially as time passes.

    Another colleague of ours lost her father when she was a toddler. The family has no letters, no journals, no thought this man ever put to paper, except a couple of penciled lines in the margin of a novel he had read. Our colleague treasures even those few lines. We can only imagine what it might have meant had her young father written a journal entry once a month, or even once a year. Or even once.

  9. Thanks to all for your words of encouragement and advice, I love to read the stories written by my ancestors and yet have done little to record my own story. Years ago I thought instead of holding myself to the discipline of journal writing I would write some short stories (that I love to write) about my own life experiences, But alas, I have failed at that as well, Levi’s post has helped me understand that I need to just sit down, as regularly as possible, and write the story. I can’t think of a better use of my spare time (certainly better than blogging;-)). Thanks again Levi.

  10. Levi Peterson says:


    Thanks for your comments. There is a consensus that recording your life is important, both to yourself and others.

    Elouise mentions our mutual friend Bert Wilson, whose everyday comments are so witty and ironic that I can well believe his letters home to him mother were rich with texture. I think Elousie’s letters would be the same. I notice her wonderful aphorisms, such as “Flossing once each birthday is just a waste of wax.” I’ll remember that one, Elouise.

    I could wish for a response to my statement that “Taking note of one’s strengths certainly ought to be a part of writing an autobiography, but so should taking note of one’s weaknesses.” This is on my mind because the majority of loved ones and friends who have written me about my autobiography mention this fact or that fact that they wish I had left out. For example, in an early chapter devoted to my mother’s first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1918, in an era when divorce was unthinkable, I discussed certain aspects of my mother’s sexual relations with her first husband, which she revealed to me in her very old age. None of my multitudinous relatives approve of that, I think, and I don’t blame them for disapproving. Yet I had my reasons, not the least of which was my own intense response to what she told me. I would have had to leave out of my autobiography a dimension of my own personality had I failed to discuss it. After some fifty years of knowing her, I saw my mother in a new light.

  11. Levi, I think many people see such admissions as slandering the dead. I’ve found a reasonably robust literature in antebellum America decrying precisely that practice and explaining it in a way that suggests the echoes of Catholic death rites could be heard on our Protestant shores. The dead are defenseless and vulnerable, and to speak “ill” of them demonstrates a potentially dangerous disrespect to those who have passed on.

    I think many of us hope that when we pass on, people will forget our flaws in order to remember us warmly and persistently. I think this is slightly different from hagiography which demands not just suppression of uncomfortable facts but amplification and embellishment of positive facts.

    My earlier journals contain a reasonable amount of confessions and darkness, my current journals contain much less. I made the conscious decision to change because I was afraid that my children would overemphasize the dark, which was really a selection bias–in earlier years the only time I reached for a journal was when something bad was happening. Now I am trying to use the journal to record a broader picture of my life.

  12. I have been a terrible journal keeper, and when I go back to it, I find it full of repetitive notes about my shortcomings and weaknesses. On the other hand, I have written, almost in short story form, about other, more upbeat incidents in my life. I have come to treasure those, and was devastated when I lost a 30 page narrative of running a first triathlon at age 52, the same week as my daughter’s marriage. I find these narratives seem to have more life, and although some selective editing of facts have taken place, they are generally pretty accurate recollections of thoughts, feelings, and conversations. These things mean a lot to me, and I suspect will mean even more to my children and forthcoming grandchildren.

    I need to get them off the computer, and onto a CD, and keep a copy in my safety deposit box. Levi, thanks again for an important reminder.

    As a literary reference, I am reminded (SciFi geek that I am) of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. I’ve always been impressed with how the telling of truths about the dead tended to have a more important impact than just the glossed over highlights we often hear. I recall in particular an LDS funeral for one of our former bishopric members, who had 4 children, only one of which was still active at that time. These four adult children got up together to reminisce about their father, and one son recalled his father as “a seething ball of anger”. That was certainly not the man that I knew, but his wife was just beaming happily that all four of her kids were there, remembering their Dad. That funeral seemed to mark a turning point for the son who had made the anger comment, and he has completely turned around his life, patched up some severe issues in his own marriage and family life, and is now a ward missionary.

    I hope someone wrote down some of that down for them.

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