Writing One’s Own Story

I am absolutely thrilled for Alisa Bowman, a longtime friend of 168 Hours, whose memoir, Project Happily Ever After, has spent the past 24 hours on Amazon’s bestseller list. Alisa and her husband nailed their Today Show appearance yesterday. They told the story of how they were on the brink of divorce — to the point where Alisa was planning Mark’s funeral — and actually managed to save their marriage. I am sure their story inspired thousands of other couples to believe they can do the same.

One of the things that makes Alisa’s book so appealing to people is how honest and personal it is. We live in a reality TV culture, and beyond that, we are always drawn to personal stories. Gretchen Rubin, for instance, wrote brilliant books on people like Winston Churchill. Which of her books became a bestseller? The Happiness Project, which chronicled her own domestic and introspective life.

I know this, but I also struggle with it with my own blogging and book writing. There are a few reasons for this. First, I’m a pretty private person. Second, it’s a sense of fair play. It would  be hard to write much about my own life without writing extensively about my husband and children, and I’d really prefer they not write about me (without my word-by-word approval or a very positive spin) someday. I tell some stories in 168 Hours. But I still think of myself primarily as a journalist, and I’d prefer to tell other people’s stories — people I have sought out and whose stories I can’t completely shape to my own ends.

I also struggle with the general flow of dramatic narrative. The best stories are conflict-rock bottom-redemption. Alisa’s marriage fits that narrative perfectly. I have a pretty even-keeled life. I don’t have a huge number of epiphanies. I am grateful for this in terms of my life going pretty well. Reading many of the best known personal finance books, I’m struck by how many authors talk about going broke and clawing back (e.g. Dave Ramsey). The closest I ever came to being broke was as a 22-year-old intern, but you’re supposed to be broke at age 22. And I really wasn’t. I had a very low cost of living, I freelanced to make extra cash, and I ended that year with more assets than when I started. This is a pattern that has basically continued through my life. Which is good for my credit score. But it does mean there isn’t a huge vein of material to mine.

And finally, especially as I write about money, I’m cognizant that the life of Manhattan-based professionals is going to be outside the broader norm for many reasons.  Beyond that, while I’ve done well on my own, I also know that a big chunk of my standard of living comes through my marriage, something that one can’t remotely recommend as a universal path to wealth. So that brings me back to mostly interviewing “real people” and experts and telling these stories which, hopefully put together, will make for compelling reading.

But I know there are a lot of writers who read this blog, so I’m curious how you feel about mining your own life for material.

5 thoughts on “Writing One’s Own Story

  1. I have also noticed how well these books about one’s own life do. It is nice but also hard to see that you’d want to necessarily open up something like your marriage for public debate — especially if it is not in big trouble…

    I think that there is a way to use your own experience — for example as a working mom or a woman — to try to craft stories that aren’t being told elsewhere but it doesn’t have to be your story exactly. I think contact with others stories can also highlight stuff for ourselves.I believe in child support but met a woman –an immigrant yesterday — whose husband used to beat the crap out of her — and now is back in Mexico — to which we say amen even though technically he should be paying child support. But even she is entrepreneurial — and could be more so with support. So I can identify with her on some level but not on every level. I think also as journalists we have to watch about info that is too general — like I like Gretchen’s work but at a certain point some of it is too general… and not that journalistic.. like be grateful; it makes you happy — there’s nothing really new to that.. but for example in her books he recommends a book called Good Calories BAd Calories which I definitely want to read — I think something can attract your attention b/c of you but not be your story — and this might be something interesting… For example I read about some of the women on Make Mine a Million Web site and I’d love to readtheir stories … so like I sell more than 10,000 a year but not a million so I’d love to know how a woman got her business form $8,000 a year to $1 million… and the personal aspect of that is interesting… like the grocery delivery thing.. etc. working out with your kids on the days you cant’ do it without them — the three or four day a week workout versus the daily one ..these kind of things are all valuable info.. and I think you do post a lot of it.. without it being about you ..

  2. thanks for the link to the book. i’ve just ordered it from the library, so look forward to yet again, another personal story.

    but also.. i just wanted to thank you fr 168 hours. I use the information daily. I teach my children about the hours in a day, my husband who says “he has no time” and I get to remind him that he does, he just does not Make time..
    I have learned from you to use my time preciously. I was thinking of you today, as I had some boring accounting work to do, and as I did it I listened to a number of TED talks, and so made great use of the time. I didn’t feel as though I had wasted an afternoon, I feel like I have learned something. Lot’s of things in fact.

    1. @Joanna: Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the book and most importantly, found it useful. I keep meaning to listen to a few more TED talks… guess I need to make time too!

  3. Be sure not to limit yourself. Lots of writers limit themselves to what they believe they are able to do. Be sure you can go as far as your mind lets you.

  4. My entire blog is mined from my own life. Writing about gifted/twice-exceptional children, I make connections with others doing the same. We feel less alone. I walk a very fine line between sharing and privacy, but so far so good. I think…

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