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How to Write Your Autobiography

Kat has been writing since she was a teenager, and she's still doing it now that she's old.

Picture it. Sicily. 1922.

Chances are you have a good idea what comes next. A story from Sophia about something exciting in her life.

You can be Sophia.

Okay, maybe not really be Sophia, but you can tell those stories and hold those listeners rapt.

Why should I write my autobiography?

Chances are that you’re writing your autobiography because you have something important to say. You might say it in a funny or serious way, but it’s on your mind, and you feel the need to share it with an audience. Not only that, but it can be lots of fun to write your autobiography. You can look back on good times and remember people and places that you loved.

What is an autobiography?

An autobiography is about the writer’s life. It will include most, if not all, important points in their life. You learn about their birth to their death, following chronological order, including childhood highlights (and lowlights), family experiences, school years, marriages, and anything else that happened to them. It lets you learn about a person.

What is a memoir?

A memoir, on the other hand, is a more focused form of an autobiography. Instead of covering the entire life of the writer, it focuses on a single topic. It might be something that spans time, like a lifetime of travel, or it might be a reduced block of time, like their college years. Life events that do not take place during the topic or time are not included or are only briefly mentioned. Memoir often use flashbacks (or even flashforwards) to connect various times of their life.

Writing an Autobiography

Define who you’re writing it for.

This is the pivotal question. Who is your audience? Are you writing it purely for yourself? Writing it doesn’t mean publishing it; it might be an exercise for you to review your life. You can also just write it for family as an heirloom to be passed down. Family stories often get lost and having that written record might be what your family needs from you. You can also

Decide what your scope will be.

Do you want to write an autobiography or a memoir? Do you want to look at all your life experiences, or just a small part of your life? You can always change your mind after you get started if you discover that you want to share more – or less – of your experiences.

Determine your focus and purpose.

If it’s an autobiography, you’ll be covering most of your life, but even then, you don’t need to put all of it in there. No one could get through a full autobiography, and you’d never be able to stop writing. Instead, you’ll be going for highlights and lowlights that readers will be drawn to. Remember that you want enough pages for a book, not an encyclopedia.

If it’s going to be a memoir, then your focus needs to be narrow. What is the important thing you learned about yourself or others? Time, places, wars, and major world events are common focuses for memoirs. You may want to talk about growing up on a deserted island or living through an uprising. Maybe you want to write about your emigration. If you’re interested in talking about that part of your life, chances are that someone wants to learn about it.

Figure out what you’re willing to share with other people.

Just because you’re writing your life story doesn’t mean you have to share all your life. There are going to be parts left out simply for the sake of pages and years left out to save time. If there are things you don’t want to reveal, including your grandmama’s recipe for peach cobbler, you don’t have to come clean.

Find out if you need to research

I’ll be honest: you’ll need to do research. None of us have perfect memories, which is okay. But if you’re going to reference major events that other people experienced, make sure you know the day and year. You’ll also want to make sure you get names and places right.

Brainstorming ideas

Brainstorming ideas

Brainstorming and Exercises

You can begin with brainstorming notable events in your life that you might want to write about or that you think your audience will be interested in.

You can mine your memories by brainstorming topics you may want to include in your autobiography.

  • Turning points
  • Special occasions
  • Romance/love affairs
  • Family history
  • Medical history
  • Friends
  • Hobbies
  • Sports
  • Military experience
  • Travels
  • Homes/Houses
  • Holidays
  • Food
  • Spiritual/religious journeys
  • Historical events lived or witnesses
  • Important meetings

Exercises

  • Create an about me page. For each topic, list three or more things that you feel are important you. Go through the brainstorming topic list and come up with at least three aspects for each that you want to talk about (or want to avoid talking about).
  • Create a life timeline. You may find doing this by hand is the easiest way. Draw a long line across a sheet of paper. Above the line are all the good things that happened to you. Below the line are the bad things. When you write something, use an arrow to show how good or how bad something is. For example, getting mugged is bad, but is it as bad as the time your sister stole your diary and showed it to your crush?
  • Pick one person that you’d have in your autobiography. As quickly as possible, write down four things about them – any four things. What do those things tell you about that person? How much would a stranger learn from those things?
Example of a timeline. This one is vertical instead of horizontal. Use whatever works for you.

Example of a timeline. This one is vertical instead of horizontal. Use whatever works for you.

Write Your Autobiography

How do you put yourself on paper?

You are your own protagonist. You have been all your life. You see and interpret things through your lenses, you think about what matters to you, and you feel all your own emotions. You need to get all that through to your reader. Sounds difficult? It can be, but here are some ways to help present yourself without spending the entire book singing your own praises.

If you’re a person who loves using character sheets to build the characters in your fiction work, you can also apply them now. If not, this is a good starting place.

Remember that your real-life friends and family are now characters to your readers.

You’re Not a Blank Slate

Look at your background. What have you done? What’s your history? What is your deepest and darkest or highest and lightest ambition? What do you really value?


Who Do You Love?

Think about your family and friends. What are important (wonderful or horrible) relationships) you’ve experienced? Who makes up your family? Who have you been in romantic relationships with? Who are your friends? Who are your enemies? Who makes your frenemies? What do you love in the world?

Conflicts

Consider conflicts. We all have them in our lives. Major conflicts and minor ones, too. We’re all made up of our details. A good list of conflicts to go over are family, friends, work, social, political, financial, and internal.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

We may like to think we are, but how boring would that be? Would you ever read an autobiography where the author talked about themselves as if they had no flaws, never made any mistakes? You’d put that down quickly.

Restrictions

What are your restrictions? How do your flaws affect you? How do they affect others that you interact with? Do they affect anyone that you don’t directly interact with?

Struggles

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you had everything you ever needed? Maybe. But it wouldn’t make for a good autobiography. Part of our lives are struggles. What struggles affected your life? Money, time, education, family, transportation, lifestyle, disability?

Show and Tell

Don’t just say it. Show it. How did your sister react when you gave her the leading role in the Christmas pageant? Why did you dump your first boyfriend, and how? Providing the audience with other people’s reactions to you can show the story of what happened as opposed to being completely inside your own head.

When you show, use your senses. Seeing, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and even psychic abilities. Don’t just hear and see things. You experience your world with all your senses. Make your reader experience it with you. Vivid descriptions will bring in your reader. Don’t be afraid to summarize when needed, though. Once you’ve gotten the reader thinking about the smell of that lemon, you can move on and simply mention the lemon scent without needing to say anything more.

Dialogue

Worlds are built on words. What words do you use? We all use some slang, but are you sarcastic? Witty? Shy? Quirky? You can use spoken word or internal monologue. Strive to be real to the situation, if not real to the exact words.

The World

What time and place do you – and your story – occupy? If you’ve written fiction before, think about the worldbuilding that you’ve done. You’ve had to include all the details, considered all the parts of everyday life that are the same or different than our actual world.

In this case, you want to look at your own world and what it was in the past. What time and place are you in during your life? Look at political, familial, social, education, and anything else that affected you.

How should you create people in your life?

As honestly as possible. Which is why it can get tricky. You’re going to have friends and family as your characters.

You don’t want to lie about someone else, but these are your memories, and you’re going to look at what happened to you and your response to it. You may want to consider others’ points of view as well. How will the situation look to the reader? You need it to be clear what side they should be on, but at the same time, you don’t want to skew the “truth” to your side. It’s a tight rope, and with practice, you’ll figure out how to go down the middle without falling.

One way to strike that balance is to make composite characters. A composite character is one that doesn’t exist by itself, but is actually several people combined. It’s not worth it to try to remember the name of everyone who came into contact with. Some people you’ll remember, and they are someone who played an important part of your life. Use them. But if you had a few friends that just flitted in and out, or if you want to create a “bad guy,” you can join people together into a single person. It’s easier to follow for the reader, and it helps to mitigate anything that might be insulting or troublesome if it gets back to the original person.

Composite characters don't exist by themselves but are actually several people combined. It allows a writer to avoid adding too many people into their autobiography.

Composite characters don't exist by themselves but are actually several people combined. It allows a writer to avoid adding too many people into their autobiography.

Writing Techniques to Use

Writing narrative nonfiction doesn’t mean that you can’t use fiction writing techniques.

For autobiographies, you always write in first person (I, me, my). This means that you can’t guess at what is going on in someone else’s head and write it from their viewpoint. The entire work must be your point of view – what you say, what you see, what you do, and what you think.

You want to write in a friendly and casual voice and informal tone. Write the way you’d talk to your friends. Avoid any jargon, unless you’re writing a memoir about something technical you did. You’ll always want to avoid cliches. Make the writing uniquely you.

For writing style, look at sentence variety. There are several types of sentences.
Simple: The dog chased the ball.
Compound: The dog chased the ball, but the child caught it.
Complex: While the child had the ball, the dog barked.
Fragment: That crazy dog!

Simile and metaphor are tools you can use for comparisons. Simile uses like or as, “dark as night” or “cold as ice.” Metaphor simply states it as fact. “Her skin was ice.”

Symbolism is used when one thing stands in for another. For example, you could have a garden in your autobiography that stands in for your grandmother. When she doesn’t feel well, the garden declines, but when she is healthy, it flourishes.

Sensory imagery is a way to appeal to as many senses as possible. If you’re describing a flower, you may choose to use words that give more than just a color. What if it’s yellow as sunshine? Instead of just the color, you may feel the warmth that it radiates.

Personification is giving personal/human characteristics to something that is not human, like animals, stores, towns, and other items. I always think about how people voted to name a boat “Boaty McBoat Face.” To me, that’s a perfect example of personification.

Quote by Anne Lamott “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Quote by Anne Lamott “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

I’ve written it – now what?

If you’ve written it for an audience, you have two choices: you can go the traditional route and look for a publisher or you can publish it yourself.

If you’re looking for a professional publisher, you can use Google or invest in Writer’s Digest.

If you want to self-publish it, you can do it in installments on a site like HubPages, you can publish it through Amazon.com, or you can look at private book publishers that you can work with. The most expensive option is going with a private book publisher, but if you’re looking to share it with your family, that might be the best way to get it whipped into shape.

The choice you make should fit your purpose.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Katherine Sanger

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