Write your life story


Thanks to Diane Burns for this idea.

Are you applying to Stanford and need help generating ideas for Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?

You might consider writing your life story. Doing so will help:

How to begin generating content? 

Here are some tips and writing exercises to help you explain your life story. First, list 10 or more topics you might cover. Then, add more bit by bit, slow and steady, day by day, week by week. Here are some general tips:

Brainstorming prompts and questions to get you started

Think about these topics when you get stuck

How to catch and hold your readers' attention? 

The best writers show. They don't tell. What does that mean?

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — Anton Chekov



Are you the hero of your story?

How do I SHOW, not tell?

Read my favorite writing coach, William Zinsser:

The content below is modified from Zinsser's On Writing Well, 25th Anniversary: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Other versions of Zinsser's memoir writing tips can be found here and here.


The memoir

The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people. Sounds and smells and songs and sleeping porches will take you just so far. Finally you must summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable—what turn of mind, what crazy habits?

Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details—people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are moving your story steadily along. Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work.

Which brings me to memoir as a form. I'll read almost anybody's memoir. For me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and unexpectedness of life. The books I remember most vividly from my first reading of them tend to be memoirs: books such as

What gives them their power is the narrowness of their focus. Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by war or some other social upheaval.

Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It's not; it's a deliberate construction. Thoreau wrote seven different drafts of Walden in eight years; no American memoir was more painstakingly pieced together. To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth. One secret of the art is detail. Any kind of detail will work—a sound or a smell or a song title—as long as it played a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distil.


Start early. Dig deep. Enjoy the process. 

Write in stages, and write something every day. Any method works as long as you are filling pages and pages with readable stories about who you are and what made you this way. If you want to secure the best professional advice, share them early and share them often. Just be sure to ask first. Not all counselors want to read your life story before you pay them. I do, if you are comfortable sharing. 


The most efficient way to generate large amounts of content is to record your counseling conversations, then listen to them later (this activity also helps TOEFL listening). In that way, you can write more each week. By the time you begin to work on essays (no later than June for September deadlines, and September for January deadlines) you will already have solid content ("story seeds") from which to create full essays.



Many of you will want to frame your story chronologically. Be careful. That method is not always the easiest. It may be better to divide your thoughts into groups of memories, or life stages. Writing in this “honeycomb” style pays off big time once you get close to deadlines. Now that Stanford imposes word limits, you will probably never get to submit your final life story to any MBA program, but you can treasure it and add to it for years to come.



I encourage writers to read extensively, much in the same way that musicians should be listening to a lot of music they love. Inspired writers should be reading as much as possible all the time.



As one reads, it is fun to learn new words. One’s application essays can and probably should contain some sophisticated vocabulary. Just be sure not to use words that you do not yet understand. Vince’s rule of thumb: use a fancy word at least five times in public without people snickering. Then and only then, add the newly mastered word to your final essay.  



Many professional writers keep a diary. Sometimes, I find the act of writing is physically painful. Personally, when I take a break from writing, I want to get away from the keyboard. Rather, I speak into Dragon voice recording software. In fact, I spoke this post and cleaned it up a bit before posting today. Please forgive the mistakes. 



I listen to spoken word poetry (mostly Bukowski, plus Aesop Rock when I need a beat). I listen to poets reading their work in order to study pacing and phrasing. Then, I read written poetry aloud, or in my mind. Thankfully, some good friends of mine are professional poets. I think poetry is fantastic when done with restraint. I have a great deal of respect for people that can apply concision to their wit. Have you read any poetry lately? Nice study break.



I was raised on spontaneous theater. My best and favorite professor, Patricia Ryan Madson, created Stanford’s widely recognized Improv Program, which includes adult classes taken by Google founders, systems designers, and venture capitalists. Patricia’s useful little book has been translated into German, Korean, and Japanese. By the way, the best Improvisers I know run Kasper Hauser, true mad comic genius.  



Last, and most importantly, please never forget that you are a storyteller. I mean that as the highest possible praise. If business schools want to teach sales, they should require all students to practice storytelling. I am talking about simple human narrative that transcends time and culture. Start simple. Start small. Start now. 


Consider sound. Here's how Eudora Welty begins One Writer's Beginnings, a deceptively slender book packed with rich remembrance

"In our house on North Congress Street, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks. There was a mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its gong-like strokes through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell. Through the night, it could find its way into our ears; sometimes, even on the sleeping porch, midnight could wake us up. My parents' bedroom had a smaller striking clock that answered it. Though the kitchen clock did nothing but show the time, the dining room clock was a cuckoo clock with weights on long chains, on one of which my baby brother, after climbing on a chair to the top of the china closet, once succeeded in suspending the cat for a moment. I don't know whether or not my father's Ohio family, in having been Swiss back in the 1700s before the first three Welty brothers came to America, had anything to do with this; but we all of us have been time-minded all our lives. This was good at least for a future fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly, and almost first of all, about chronology. It was one of a good many things I learned almost without knowing it; it would be there when I needed it.

My father loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate. His place to keep things was the drawer in the "library table" where lying on top of his folded maps was a telescope with brass extensions, to find the moon and the Big Dipper after supper in our front yard, and to keep appointments with eclipses. There was a folding Kodak that was brought out for Christmas, birthdays, and trips. In the back of the drawer you could find a magnifying glass, a kaleidoscope, and a gyroscope kept in a black buckram box, which he would set dancing for us on a string pulled tight. He had also supplied himself with an assortment of puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained together, impossible for the rest of us, however patiently shown, to take apart; he had an almost childlike love of the ingenious.

In time, a barometer was added to our dining room wall; but we really didn't need it. My father had the country boy’s accurate knowledge of the weather and its skies. He went out and stood on our front steps first thing in the morning and took a look at it and a sniff. He was a pretty good weather prophet. "Well, I'm not," my mother would say with enormous self-satisfaction.

So I developed a strong meteorological sensibility. In years ahead when I wrote stories, atmosphere took its influential role from the start. Commotion in the weather and the inner feelings aroused by such a hovering disturbance emerged connected in dramatic form."

Notice how much we learn instantly about Eudora Welty’s beginnings—the kind of home she was born into, the kind of man her father was. She has rung us into her Mississippi girlhood with the chiming of clocks up and down the stairs and even out onto the sleeping porch.


For Alfred Kazin, smell is a thread that he follows back to his boyhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. From my first encounter with Kazan's A Walker in the City, long ago, I remember it as a sensory memoir. The following passage is not only a good example of how to write with your nose; it shows how memoir is nourished by a writers ability to create a sense of place—what it was that made his neighborhood and his heritage distinctive:

"It was the darkness and emptiness of the streets I liked most about Friday evening, as if in preparation for that day of rest and worship which the Jews greet "as a bride"—that day when the very touch of money is prohibited, all work, all travel, all household duties, even to the turning on and off of a light—Jewry had found its way past its tormented heart to some ancient still center of itself. I waited for the streets to go dark on Friday evening as other children waited for the Christmas lights.

When I returned home after three, the warm odor of a coffee cake baking in the oven, and the sight of my mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the linoleum on the dining room floor, filled me with such tenderness that I could feel my senses reaching out to embrace every single object in our household.

My great moment came at six, when my father returned from work, his overalls smelling faintly of turpentine and shellac, white drops of silver paint still gleaming on his chin. Hanging his overcoat in the long dark hall that led into our kitchen, he would leave in one pocket a loosely folded copy of the New York World; and then everything that beckoned to me from that other hemisphere of my brain beyond the East River would start up from the smell of fresh newsprint and the sight of the globe on the front page. It was a paper that carried special associations for me with Brooklyn Bridge.

They published the World under the green dome on Park Row overlooking the bridge; the fresh salt air of New York harbor lingered for me in the smell of paint and damp newsprint in the hall. I felt that my father brought the outside straight into our house with each day's copy of the World."

Kazin would eventually cross the Brooklyn Bridge and become the dean of American literary critics. But the literary genre that has been at the center of his life is not the usual stuff of literature: the novel, or the short story, or the poem. It's memoir, or what he calls "personal history"—specifically, such "personal American classics," discovered when he was a boy, as Walt Whitman's Civil War diary Specimen Days and his Leaves of Grass, Thoreau's Walden and especially his Journals, and The Education of Henry Adams.

What excited Kazin was that Whitman, Thoreau and Adams wrote themselves into the landscape of American literature by daring to use the most intimate forms—journals, diaries, letters and memoirs—and that he could also make the same "cherished connection" to America by writing personal history and thereby place himself, the son of Russian Jews, in the same landscape. You can use your own personal history to cross your own Brooklyn Bridge.


For Maxine Hong Kingston, a daughter of Chinese immigrants in Stockton, California, shyness and embarrassment were central to the experience of being a child starting school in a strange land. In this passage, aptly called "Finding a Voice," from her book The Woman Warrior, notice how vividly Kingston recalls both facts and feelings from those traumatic early years in America:

"When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent. A dumbness—a shame—still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say "hello" casually, or ask an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions of a bus driver. I stand frozen.

During the first silent year I spoke to no one at school, did not ask before going to the lavatory, and flunked kindergarten. My sister also said nothing for three years, silent in the playground and silent at lunch. There were other quiet Chinese girls not of our family, but most of them got over it sooner than we did.

I enjoyed the silence. At first it did not occur to me I was supposed to talk or to pass kindergarten. I talked at home and to one or two of the Chinese kids in class. I made motions and even made some jokes. I drank out of a toy saucer when the water spilled out of the cup, and everybody laughed, pointed at me, so I did it some more. I didn't know that Americans don't drink out of saucers…

It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. "Louder," said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl.”

That childhood whisper is now an adult writer's voice that speaks to us with wisdom and humor, and I'm grateful to have that voice in our midst. Nobody but a Chinese-American woman could have made me feel what it's like to be a Chinese girl plunked down in an American kindergarten and expected to be an American girl.