How to Write an Autobiography
“Autobiography” is a word that might confuse some people. Biography means the story of someone’s life. Auto means “about oneself”: so the word means the life story of the person writing the life story. Only one person can write an autobiography: the person whose story is being told.
Writing your own life story is a difficult task, and is usually left for the latter part of one’s life, when a substantial term of living has been completed, and there is a long story to tell.
There must always be a reason to write an autobiography: these are stories not usually attempted by people who live ordinary, mundane lives. In general, people who have suffered some unusual misadventure or trauma, people who have achieved greatness, or people who have committed outstanding mistakes or endured extreme hardships have stories valid enough to write about in an autobiography.
There is no set pattern or plan to writing an autobiography: the story can take any form, as long as it is written expressively and in an informative or entertaining way.
Steps for Writing an Autobiography
The most accepted format for an autobiography is chronological. This means writing the life story in the order in which it happened. One starts with a bit of background of parents and family, and proceeds from the time of one’s birth.
- Consider your whole life. Think about how you have lived it. Try to remember the salient points, and the achievements and adventures or mishaps that shaped it.
- Make a list of all the events, incidents, and accidents that you would like to mention. Make a list of people who were – or still are – involved in your life. Add substance to the list by writing a brief description of each person, event, accident, misfortune, lucky strike, and occasion you can remember. A plan must be created from the result of this summary.
- Hold meetings with relatives and friends, who can remind you of events and people you might have forgotten.
- Gather as much information as you can in the way of photographs, letters, paintings, mementos, souvenirs, personal belongings, recordings, and other audio, visual, or personal material. These make for useful memory triggers; and will elicit stories.
- Reserve a long time to cover all the talking, listening, and reading you might have to do to put together an account of your whole life. Although you know it all well yourself, the aim is to make your knowledge and interpretation sound fresh and interesting to those who will read it.
- Take plenty of notes and start to draft the story, using a fresh perspective for the anecdotes and narratives you have gathered.
- As with other writing, it is always wise to draft the introduction and first chapter last. This method provides the opportunity to introduce your work in an appropriate way, and devise an absorbing and well-written autobiography.
Key Points to Consider
- An autobiography is a personal document to write. The motivation behind it might be to leave your story to your descendants, to entertain the family, or to put on record some unusual achievement or escapade.
- It takes months, if not years, to put a whole life into words. It also takes a lot of careful thought and cautious deliberation. Telling the story as it happened might be the easiest way, but it is also possible to work in flashbacks or vignettes.
- Places, people, and time are all important to get right in an autobiography. There are also opinions, attitudes, feelings, decisions, and resolutions that might be difficult to write about without becoming overly emotional. Taking the occasional break might relieve stress.
- An autobiography cannot avoid the mention of family members and friends. No one lives a life of complete isolation. It is vital to ask permission to mention incidents, events, cases and procedures that involve others.
- It is inevitable that someone is hurt, insulted, or offended by the content you write. Try to lessen the impact of what you write in two ways: by making the person aware of what you are writing and how you are framing the context and connections; and the second way is by using the most diplomatic and tactful explanatory language you can.
- Use your genealogical information to depict your life accurately in the context of who your family and antecedents were, the locations in which they originated, and information about their lives – since without them, you would not have a story to write.
Dos and Don’ts
- Not allowing enough time to remember all childhood and youth incidents. It might be too late to make additions. Talking to relatives is vital.
- Repetition – if others in your family have written autobiographies, it is inevitable that you will relate similar stories about the same events. Try to make yours as original as possible.
- Lack of focus. This story is all about you. Of course, people rarely live totally isolated lives and others are involved – but the focus is your life and how you lived it.
- Forgetting the importance of the task. This piece of work might live on much longer than you will. Your family might regard it with suspicion, or with great delight. To make sure it is a story everyone enjoys, you must work hard to get it right and make it pleasant.
- Lack of analysis. Even the story of someone’s life needs some sort of reflection about how it relates to the world and environment in which it is lived. Try to make the context unusual, thought provoking, and unforgettable.