I’ve written about great-grandmothers and professional football players, inventors and entrepreneurs, community activists and politicians, experts and novices, explorers and poets. The one thing they all have in common is perhaps obvious: they all have a story to tell. They are all on a quest to follow a passion, whether that passion is for mapping the far north regions of Alaska or for raising a happy, healthy family.
When I try to draw general conclusions about personal stories based on those I’ve helped to tell, I realize that there are three reasons we tell our stories: to inform, to influence, or to inspire. We inform by explaining how a technology was developed, or how to feed a child with food allergies, or what the most difficult part of pre-season training in the NFL is. We influence by urging people to change their behavior based on a particular issue: why to take children camping, or why to try a paleo diet, or why to become a hospice volunteer. We inspire when we tell a story that makes someone feel that they could be a better person by following our example: I overcame this hardship and you can too; I gave up this habit and you can too; I changed my future by approaching a problem a certain way and you can too.
And when done right, all three of these actions – informing, influencing, and inspiring – also have the additional potential to entertain.
Whatever your particular mission or passion may be, telling the story of how it has shaped your life has the potential to inform, influence, or inspire other people. Everyone has a story to tell – and everyone has the ability to tell a story that will have a profound effect on those who read it. Thus are the tenets of approaching a memoir project.