Sooner or later, many of us think that we’d like to write an autobiography. Maybe we should even write our memoirs, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.
The point is this: We’ve all these memories and associations, relationships, sometimes sharp, sometimes soft, but we have them in our mind, and we feel like we want to put them on paper.
We want to tell someone the story we experienced, and sometimes we don’t even understand exactly why we want to tell that particular story, but we have a strong feeling that we want to do so. In this article, we’ll look at exactly how you can approach your autobiography writing.
Autobiography or Memoir
An autobiography is the whole thing – a whole life, usually told chronologically as a series of significant events. Sometimes with the help of a ghostwriter. You should only ever have to write one autobiography!
But to qualify for it, you must have either:
a) lived a life worth living
b) been infamous or notorious
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a story about your life. Quite the contrary.
But the memoir form may be better suited for you.
Memoirs as a Slice of Life
A memoir is a much more artistic endeavor than an autobiography or biography. They’re less limited to dry facts and much more concerned with the meaning of life – whether by examining a specific period of time or looking at a period of life through a thematic lens.
It’s about a story within one’s life, not the whole life story. A slice of life experience. In my view, an excellent memoir is much closer to creative nonfiction than an autobiography.
The great thing about memoirs is that you can use them for almost any purpose and make them whatever you want.
A memoir usually isn’t as long as an autobiography and is written from a different perspective.
Writing autobiography is about your life, from your perspective. That’s not always the case with memoirs. Here, the author focuses on
a) a particular period of life,
b) a particular kind of life or
c) a particular event.
You can tell about a day in your life that was particularly memorable, which is another type of memoir.
You don’t even have to tell the story in chronological order, but if it helps put things in order, you can do that too.
Memoirs can also be more subjective than an autobiography. A memoir is usually the story of your life as you see it.
Themes in a Memoir or Autobiography
You can focus on key moments and look at either a period of time or a topic in your life that you want to write about.
Topics can be anything from your relationship with your parents to overcoming fear. Family, religion, work, relationships, health, hobbies – whatever you prefer – are fair game for the memoirist’s pen.
Themes give meaning to life. That’s why they’re so important in an autobiography or memoir.
There are other forms you should keep in mind:
- In a biography, someone else writes about someone.
- An autobiographical essay is something that’s required of prospective college or college applicants, in which they focus on experiences and accomplishments that add weight to their application. It’s an opportunity for a student to demonstrate relevant qualifications and qualities for entry, as well as the ability to construct a well-argued piece in writing that is looser in style than straight academic writing. You can think of it as a personal essay.
The Moving Parts
If you’re thinking about writing your own autobiography, you should first be aware of the key elements that will ensure your autobiography really stands out and engages readers.
There are a number of factors that play a role in this and we’ll discuss them one by one.
At its core, autobiographical writing is a search for meaning and identity.
A good autobiography isn’t just about you and your experiences. Somewhere in your autobiography, there’s always a universal message that manifests itself in the story you tell.
In this sense, an autobiography isn’t simply a list of experiences that you string together, although you can use a chronological structure. But that’s far from the whole story.
A great autobiography has all the elements of a fantastic novel or a great movie. In other words, it’s to engage the reader emotionally and keep them enthralled.
Otherwise, there’s no motivation to keep reading.
In the world of filmmaking, a central theme is sometimes called a “controlling idea” – akin to a thesis statement, it’s the fulcrum around which the narrative revolves.
No one is interested in a string of events. The events must have meaning, and the music and rhythm of life should permeate your autobiography for it to really jump off the page and truly engage the reader.
There’s nothing like a universal message told in the form of a story.
A Strong Story
A great autobiography is a story that tells strongly. That’s why it matters to be clear about the story you want to tell, and the key events that story embraces.
Granted, this story may not be clear to you at the beginning of writing your autobiography. In fact, the story may not be clear to you until late in the writing and editing process.
You may even not understand the real story you’re telling until you are revising. That’s why it’s so important to be flexible in outlining, structuring, writing, and revising. In other words, in the overall organization of your autobiography, which we’ll discuss in more detail in this article.
We’ll look at specific methods to help you structure your autobiography and put together the pieces you need.
And we’ll show you how to put those pieces together to create a really good autobiography.
But before we go any further, let’s look at a few key elements that make a good autobiography.
You should be concerned with the spirit of the times – the so-called Zeitgeist – at the time you’re talking about at a particular moment in your life story.
For example, if you’re talking about the 1960s, you want the flavor and feel of that time to be reflected on the page.
It can be allusions to the music of the time. It can be allusions to the cars or the way of shopping that existed back then. The things that were happening on the street.
They can have to do with the attitudes of the people around you that were important at the time and the way they acted and thought.
This creates a picture in the reader’s mind’s eye of what was happening around you at the time. That important things were happening to you or important things were being done by you.
There’s something mysterious about a good autobiography.
Not everything in life is clear and unambiguous! Life is often very ambiguous, and readers appreciate honesty and humility. By its nature, personal experience is subjective.
Readers don’t want to read someone who’s arrogant and knows everything. The fact is that not everything in your own life is clear to yourself, let alone to others around you!
Therefore, it can be very good to acknowledge this and either mention it directly in your writing or have moments in the story where you allow the mystery to exist because it does.
This sense of mystery lets the reader’s imagination run wild. It allows the reader to understand that life is made up of a series of veils. In most cases, the reader will find himself relating parts of your story to his own life story. He’ll feel addressed and that’s what draws him in.
Life isn’t just about clear challenges and overcoming them. As compelling as such “hero stories” may be. There are very deep mysteries in life that we all ponder from time to time and that keep popping up in our lives.
That’s why I think this sense of mystery is very important.
Revelations and Story Beats
In addition to secrets, you should also have moments of revelation in your autobiography.
Moments when something suddenly becomes clear or someone realizes something. Life lessons that change the trajectory of your life. Or the nature and meaning of a relationship become clear, and that drives you to a decision or action.
In that sense, the events in your autobiography are less about the external events and more about the internal events where you make a decision about what to do at certain stages. Or you come to a judgment or conclusion about something that you’ll then probably change at a later point in your life.
The point is that these moments of change, the so-called swing points in your life – the “beats” in movie language – are very, very important because they mark turning points in the story of your life.
The Plot of Your Life
It’s very helpful to think of your life as a movie plot. We’ll discuss this technique later in this article.
So your autobiography isn’t just a collection of the best and worst moments of your life, even if you desperately want the polarity of good and bad to make your story stand out.
Juxtaposition is a very important element. You want things to contrast because that helps build emotion. It helps build tension and drama in the story.
Tension is very important for reader engagement. You can think of it like a rubber band that you slowly twist. It gets tighter and tighter. The trick is to keep stretching it open, building it up more and more, and then relaxing it again. Tighten it up and then relax it again. Over and over again.
In other words, play with the tension in your life story, that’s, your autobiography.
Another important element in your autobiography is context shifts.
Sometimes these are changes of place. So you move, go to a different place, or arrive at a different place.
Sometimes they’re contextual shifts in terms of relationships with other people.
Sometimes it’s contextual shifts in terms of your life purpose and how you define what’s important to you and what you really want to accomplish.
But it’s useful to be aware of these contextual shifts in your life and to think about these seams in your life as you write your autobiography.
Now let’s look at the key steps to writing your autobiography.
A Very Personal Journey
If anyone tells you that there’s some sort of standard template for writing an autobiography or memoir, run away! Quick.
Writing and stories aren’t about trying to squeeze experiences and memories into some kind of template.
The most important thing in writing a good, meaningful work is the author’s connection to the material.
Writing is about how you see the world, how you understand your experiences, and how you want to share them with readers.
Writing is a very personal journey, and it can be very different for everyone.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a memoir about how you worked your way up in your profession and discovered leadership and management skills along the way, or if you’re writing a memoir about your relationship with your mother.
Either is perfectly fine.
Tell the stories that burn inside you. Write about what it means to be alive, awake, aware, and a wonderful person. Make up a story that’s as personal as you see fit.
Memoirs help you do that. The way you choose what to include and what not to include, what to focus on and what to ignore, is up to you.
A Thought for the Reader
Picture the scene. You have a few minutes in the bookstore, browsing the titles scattered on the table of featured books – or the digital equivalent online.
A cover catches your eye. Something intrigues you so much that you actually pick up the book.
What do you do?
You probably read the blurb on the back cover and then the first page or two. Often that’s enough to make you buy the book or quickly put it back on the pile.
Something in the blurb and on the first few pages has to appeal to you. Otherwise, you won’t get involved and the book has left your universe forever!
So when you’re thinking about, constructing, and writing your memoir or autobiography, be clear about what about your story will appeal to other people, your future readers!
This doesn’t mean you should be cocky about your writing. On the contrary, an honest path through your story is almost always better. But it does mean that you develop a sense of your reader’s attention!
Otherwise, you’re just writing for yourself. That’s fine, by the way – it can be a wonderful way to soothe the soul.
But if you want other people to read your stuff, you need to think carefully about what in your story will grab attention, and what in each scene is worth paying attention to!
The Two Treasure Chests
I believe that we all have two treasure chests when it comes to memories, stories, and thus memoir writing.
The first is the treasure chest of memories and reflections. These are in the treasure chest of your mind, and your job is to capture them on paper or on the screen and eventually work them into a story.
The second treasure chest is physical and digital mementos. Photos, CDs, letters, diaries, old notebooks, clothes, souvenirs, and more. They serve as a wonderful stimulus for remembering and writing. Although you could collect them in one place before writing, that’s probably impractical. Therefore, a good solution is to have a photo mood board with all the things you’ve accumulated over the years.
An easy way to do this is to use the built-in photo app on your computer. I use a Mac, so this is Photos for me. It’s easy to collect pictures in an album and resize them to see more or less of them as needed.
Then and Now Time
One of the questions people ask when writing a memoir is how to handle tenses.
I think it’s worth considering two different time frames: the “then time” and the “now time.” This means that you put yourself in the moment of the remembered events, but see them as you experienced them at the time. This way you can vividly represent them and discover them in your text.
It’s not so much a matter of tense as it’s of perspective and setting.
The “now time” is the time of reflection: you look back on past events with the wisdom of hindsight.
As a rule, it’s a good idea to write the main narrative in the “then time” because otherwise, you run the risk of your memoir becoming a boring flashback instead of a compelling journey for the reader.
Connect with Your Inner Child
There’s one particular technique worth mentioning when it comes to writing about childhood experiences: the “connect with your inner child” meditation. I first learned about it at the wonderful Plum Village retreat in France.
Basically, a guided meditation takes you back to your childhood and creates a connection that you can access at will. Incredibly powerful, in life and in writing.
Imagine seeing your younger self in a scene and later adding how your older, wiser self understood what you were experiencing, even if you didn’t know it at the time.
This technique of shifting perspective is extremely effective in both memoirs and novels.
It’s worth trying the Plum Village app for IOS. It’s completely free and offers many great meditations.
Break Out of the Prison of Linear Narrative
Where should you start with your memoir?
And how do you start writing them?
Unless you’re dealing with a tight time frame and a really compelling ongoing narrative, telling your story in a non-linear way will probably help a lot.
Remember, you’re making a selection of events, not trying to tell everything that happened.
Therefore, not only can you make a selection of time periods – which don’t have to be worked through in strict order, especially if you’re writing out your memoir thematically – but you can use nonlinear writing in a powerful way for your entire process.
We don’t think linearly, so why write that way!
When I sit down to write, I focus on the task at hand: the sentences, paragraphs, and pages in front of me. I don’t worry excessively about everything having to be perfect and fit at the time of writing. Everything in its own time! During the editing and the second draft, I start moving the blocks around so they tell a story.
Using Scrivener to Structure Nonlinear Writing
The app that best helps this nonlinear writing process is Scrivener.
I’ve used it for many years and the way it handles index cards on its “corkboard” has saved me more times than I care to remember in finding structure in writing and filmmaking.
Another wonderful app I can recommend is Aeon Timeline. The latest version 3 has a narrative mode and several other perspectives that let you get a handle on chronology, eras, intersections of characters, and more.
The Truth in Autobiography
When you write your memoir, you write a piece of truth. Your truth. There’s no such thing as objective truth, certainly not in writing. Nor, for that matter, in filmmaking.
There’s only a subjective truth – the truth as you see it. The interesting thing is that your truth becomes someone else’s truth through a magical process of transformation.
Your mother’s truth becomes your truth, your neighbor’s truth becomes your truth, your lover’s truth becomes your truth.
One of the reasons I recommend writing your memoir instead of an autobiography is that you can focus on a particular story, a particular moment in your life, and if you do it right, you can present it in a way that speaks to other people.
You write your memoir with the goal of expressing your truth in a way that communicates it clearly to your reader without misleading them.
This is because they’re based on facts and what really happened (as best you can remember it). This is part of a basic, unwritten contract you make with your future readers when you write your memoir or autobiography.
Find a Coherent Narrative
To tell your story clearly and understandably, you must find a coherent narrative that ties together the concepts you want to convey.
The narrative won’t be perfect; it’ll need to be revised because the story you’re telling isn’t an objective fact; it’s your truth.
It’s the narrative that makes your story interesting to your readers. Readers like narratives!
You’ll hopefully write your story in such a way that even if the reader doesn’t know what happened to you, they’ll know what you felt and thought.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s very liberating to understand that the shape and order of your narrative will emerge during the writing process – not something you’ve to decide in advance before you even start putting words on the page.
A Structural Approach to Autobiography and Memoir
The thing is, you don’t have to pressure yourself to figure out the structure of your narrative from the start. You also don’t have to summarize ideas, memories, or themes in predefined chapters.
Chapters are the surest way into the writer’s prison.
As the wonderful writer Terry Pratchett put it:
Life doesn’t happen in chapters at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn’t write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children’s books (“I’ll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep”) but I’m blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults.SIR TERRY PRATCHETT
Writing programs like Scrivener allow you to collect the fragments and spit them out, knowing that you can later group them and put them into a form. That’s tremendously liberating. It’s how I’ve made films, it’s how I write long texts, and it’s how I write articles – including this article.
Like you, I’m sure, I’ve no idea right now how this article will turn out. But it’ll appear, you can bet on that. And I know it’ll be good because it comes from the heart. And it’s immediate. Not overthought.
When you write your memoir, you can do the same thing.
I start with a lot of different ideas, but also a lot of notes, photos, or videos that I’ve taken. I make sure I can find them easily. If I’ve everything in one place, it’s easier for me to get it out.
You’ve to let your mind become a sieve, a filter, a funnel that you pour your experiences into so they come out transformed.
You’ll have to go through everything several times, in fact, you’ll have to go through your story several times.
First, you write down everything you remember, everything you think is important, everything that feels like it belongs to your story.
Second, you shape this mass of material into something coherent.
Third, you edit the material.
Dreams and Meditations
Dreams and meditations play an important role in all forms of writing. Even in memoir. The trick is to capture the fragment on paper or screen as quickly as possible before it flies away.
Let me give you an example:
I remember the first time I heard Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I was walking down the hallway at school when I was about nine years old. Suddenly I heard this incredible sound coming from a record player (yes, I’m that old) turned up full blast in an adjoining room. There was no one in the room, just the music. Coming from a conservative family where pop music just wasn’t played at home, I think this was the first time I really got a taste of a larger culture. Out there.
I was amazed.
Use Dictation to Write Your Memoir
Sometimes when I’m writing, I think of a scene, close my eyes, and start dictating. It’s all the more convenient when I know that one of the many transcription apps will do the hard work for me afterward.
Recently, I recalled that when I was about twelve years old, my brother and I were up against the local giant nettle patch. To us, they weren’t nettles – they were an army. Hours later we were called up for tea – and I suffered from hay fever for years afterward.
This memory also brought back to me the memory of another day when, together with local boys, we found a barn with huge black garbage cans in it. The game was to hide in the garbage cans while others threw stones and tried to hit us. Inevitably, a rock hit me right between the eyes. If it had been just an inch further away, I’d have lost an eye.
Rather than lose these memories to the chaff of the day, I immediately documented them with a voice recording on my iPhone. Safe in the knowledge that I could easily transcribe and include them in my memoir later.
Allow yourself to dream, to remember, to record, to document. Don’t be guided by the thought that these recordings must have a certain form before they must.
One way to think about your memoir is to think of it as a series of vignettes – short, impressionistic scenes that focus on a moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or environment.
The origin of the word is worth knowing: it comes from Old French and means “little vine.” If you think about it, it’s a very nice analogy for what great memoir writing can do: a series of independent yet interconnected vines that together form a whole.
When I think about my own life in this way, I don’t see a linear path. Things have happened in a random order, I’ve been in one place and then another. Or in the same place in different time periods.
I don’t see my life as a single, coherent, meaningful narrative. It’s more like a series of vignettes between which I can see connections, but not a continuous line.
Your vignette can be part fantasy, part dream, you can change the time period, time of day, weather, season, lighting, or anything else you want.
If you include dialog, make sure it’s believable; if you include your (or other) participants’ thoughts, make sure they ring true.
If you’re worried about authenticity, pick a moment you can actually remember clearly.
As a child, I’m sitting on the floor in the kitchen of my house. I’m nine years old. The kitchen is very bright. I’m eating a sugared roll – one of my favorite foods. I’m thinking about my friend’s birthday party tomorrow, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also thinking about getting my housework done today. It’s light in the kitchen.
The truth, of course, is that I’m thinking about all of this at the same time.
Later, I listen to the sound of rain falling on the roof of the conservatory. It’s a sound I’ve long loved. I watch the different shades of light coming in through the window. The light casts shadows. The light is bright.
I think about the things I need to do today. I’ve some homework to do. I need to do the dishes. I need to clean up.
The thing that might hold together seemingly random moments like the above is the growing quality of reflection and the pressure that life puts on the mind.
When writing memoirs and autobiographies, all kinds of prompts can be very useful.
We’ve already discussed the two treasure chests above.
But there are also a number of very useful questions that can get your mind going and make deep memory connections.
Here are just a few examples:
- What was my most treasured toy? Why was it important to me?
- What do I remember about the kitchen growing up? What smells can I still remember today? What could I glimpse out the window?
- What did I do that I regretted? What I can’t tell another soul about?
- Driving with the family in the car. What’s happening right now? Where are we going?
- When was the first time I was really angry? What had happened?
- When did I feel most betrayed in my life?
- When did I fall in love for the first time? Out of love?
As you can imagine, there are many, many more.
The point isn’t to go on an endless memory hunt, but to lift the veil of the unconscious to find the topic you think is important for your memoir. And more often than not, a deeper theme emerges. A deeper meaning to your life story that you want to put on paper.
That, after all, is the real art of memoir: distilling a lifetime’s experiences into a coherent, readable, and meaningful whole.
The prompts don’t have to be about the past – they can be about the present.
They can be about your life today – your current life and your relationship to it and the people around you. Then you can find out how your current reality has been shaped by profound forces and influences throughout your life.
Ultimately, you’re the only person who really knows your motivations for writing your memoir. There’s no need for you to provide an explanation to the public!
What do you hope to gain by writing your memoir?
A sense of closure? A sense of accomplishment? Redemption?
A chance to share the themes of your life story with others so they can learn from your journey?
An opportunity to see your story told so you can look back and reflect on the meaning of your life and the direction your life might take in the future?
Whatever the reason, the end result should be something greater than a simple retelling of your life.
Perhaps it’s about creating a legacy, leaving something that will stay with you beyond your time, your years, and your life into the future.
When you write your memoir, you’re also writing your legacy. Or at least part of it.
That’s why it’s worth pausing for a moment.
Beware of the natural human instinct to right the wrongs done to us in the past. Seeking revenge will lead you down a dark path. Once it’s published, it’s published. And it’s hard to crawl back.
My advice would be to make your memoir a positive impulse.
We all make mistakes; why not look back on them with awareness, acceptance, and understanding?
Awareness will lead us to change the pattern of behavior, acceptance will lead us to forgiveness, and understanding will show us how to forgive others.
Remember, forgive the person, but not the crime.
Writing your memoir can be a part of the healing process. If you let it.
Scenes That Resonate
Actors know that there are “scene objectives” in scenes – things the character wants and is trying to achieve.
This isn’t always true, but it’s very often the case that the character either achieves their goal or doesn’t. There will be a clear resolution to the scene.
You can also look at your memoir in this way.
The goal of a particular scene is to get the character from one point in the story to the next in a way that makes sense to the reader.
How do you do that? Through the concept of scenes that “get there.” In a way, it’s similar to a joke that “lands” with its punchline.
These “landings” are ways to get from one scene to the next.
They’re places of transition where action and reflection mix and you can move from one scene to the next. This is where you place the dissonance that will lead to your character’s next destination.
Remember that these transitions will become clearer and clearer as you write and move into revision. You don’t have to have a set structure for your memoir. You do, however, need a series of vivid scenes, fast or slow sections, that serve to deepen your narrative.
The Movie of Your Life
There’s a classic and well-understood dramatic arc that underlies almost all movies. I’m not suggesting that you apply it to the way you write your autobiography or memoir, but it can be very useful to you as you reflect on the ebb and flow of your life.
Each of us goes through a series of “walls” in our lives. Ones that we break through after we find our way or ones that we somehow get around.
To overcome the major obstacles of life usually requires inner change and realization. When we overcome life’s walls, we learn an important lesson that we take with us into the next phase.
I personally found it very helpful to plot these walls on a timeline of my life. On the X-axis was my age, and on the Y-axis was the amount of hardship endured. That kind of correspond to the level of drama. This was an incredibly valuable exercise because it helped me step back from the story of my life and look at it from the outside.
The way a reader might.
It helped me recognize the moments in my life that involved real struggle, real emotion, and real conflict. In this way, it served as a map for my memoir.
So I took the major events in my life – death, illness, divorce, early trouble spots, etc. – and drew them on the line. Where they took place, what age I was, and what was happening in my life at the time.
An interesting thing happened.
I thought I’d written about big events before, but I’d never gone into enough detail to really immerse the reader in the pain, emotion, and drama.
Also, I hadn’t allowed myself to take ownership and responsibility for these events.
Subconsciously, I’d distanced myself from my own life. This isn’t to say that it was all my fault. But I was guilty of being too easy on myself.
As you can probably guess, this was an important moment in my writing process.
What’re your walls? When did you overcome them? How did you overcome them?
Maybe you’ve decided you’re going to overcome them? Or maybe you’re still waiting to overcome them.
In any case, these moments of significant change are important to the success of your autobiography.
Commit to Yourself
Writing memoirs or autobiographies is difficult. Even if no one but you may ever get to see them!
It requires deep inner work – a journey into the soul.
And it requires a serious commitment to writing continuously over a long period of time.
The former means accessing your unconscious, as I described earlier in this article.
The latter is a challenge that all writers face. The simple yet not so simple task of sitting down in your chair and writing every day. Your own writing journey.
So before you start, make some commitments to yourself.
- Commit to writing every day.
- Commit to writing as many words as you estimate you’ll need to finish your book.
- Commit to not cheat on your word count.
- Do your best, because you know your best is good enough.
- Show up to your desk and your soul.
This is the hallmark of a professional writer. Which you may not be. But why not adopt the mindset and practices of one?
One thing: don’t rush.
A memoir or autobiography shouldn’t be written under time pressure. Give your writing time to breathe and your reflections time to go deep. You’re laying the groundwork for something great.
I think one of the hardest things to write about is your relationship with your parents.
I lost both of my parents, one of them recently. Even as time passes, it’s hard to look deep (as a writer must) in a way that inevitably evokes pain and grief in me.
But that pain must be endured if you’re to have access to what’s probably one of the most important influences on your psyche, whether you want to admit it or not.
As a writer, as an artist, as a human being, you must deal with them honestly. And do so with as much compassion as possible.
In other words, you’ve to go through the same process of soul-searching and deep inner discovery as you’d with any other difficult subject.
You must apply your understanding of life and its meaning to the subject. And you must write from a position of humility and compassion.
Brainstorming for Your Autobiography
I always think of “brainstorming” more as “thought development” – a quieter and more meditative approach to writing.
You call up ideas and play with them. Try them out. To see what develops. These ideas transform as you write, re-read, and sleep on them.
Then when you come back to your writing, you’ve new things to work with. Ideas that have been developing in the background.
This is a good way to gather ideas for your memoir. It’s a way to write without writing.
- In one sentence, invent a sentence that says something about your life.
- In a paragraph, invent a paragraph that says something about your life.
- In a scene, invent a scene that says something about your life.
- Write a memory that says something about your life.
Then ask yourself: What do you’ve to say?
- What’s the most important thing you’ve to say?
- What’s the most dramatic thing you’ve to say?
- What’s the most impactful moment you can convey?
I use mind mapping extensively to “develop thoughts” – the best apps I’ve found for this are iThoughts and TheBrain. The beauty of TheBrain is that it allows for contextual thinking around a subtopic – something that’s difficult to achieve with traditional radial mind maps.
You can also use free online tools like XMind and Coggle, or paper and a pen.
You’ll find that this way of thinking brings ideas to life in ways you mightn’t be able to if you only thought linearly.
Why not just write an essay about your life, drawing from the stream of consciousness? And then see what sticks.
Related: How to Focus on Writing an Essay
Write a Letter to Yourself
Another way to write your autobiography or memoir is to imagine you’re writing a letter to yourself.
A great letter to write is is to tell yourself the story you want to write about yourself.
Or you can take on the role of mentor to yourself:
The “you” in this case is your current self.
- Write a letter to your former self.
- What advice would you give to your former self?
- What guidance would you give?
- What would you do differently?
- How would your former self respond?
- How would your current self respond?
- How would your future self react?
- How would your friends and family react?
- How would your children react?
How to Outline Your Autobiography or Memoir
The most important thing you need to know about outlining as a writer is that it’s not a process that happens before you settle down to write, and it’s written down in a kind of gospel.
Quite the opposite.
The “how” (the outline) and the “what” (the writing) are intricately intertwined and bounce off each other.
Outlining Is a Dynamic Process
If you have a good idea of what you want to write about, you can put that idea into an outline.
There are many different ways to do this. Most involve writing a few key words, phrases, sentences, or even just a few key phrases that describe the main content of your book.
A book is usually a collection of chapters (but be sure to read my comments about chapters above).
You can outline a chapter by writing a few key words, phrases, sentences, or even just a few key sentences to describe the main content of your chapter.
You can also outline a scene. Again, you write a few key words, phrases, sentences, or even just a few key phrases to describe the main content of your scene.
The purpose of an outline is to give you a “basic structure” to work with.
The more details you’ve, the better.
How to Approach Research in Your Autobiography or Memoir
Aside from the treasure troves described above, which are more for stimulation or inspiration than research, at some point in your writing, you’ll need to track down certain facts and connections.
You can do most of this research on the Internet.
There are now so many wonderful online resources for writers. These include free radio archives, video archives, music archives, image archives, document archives, government archives, etc.
The list is endless.
Of course, you can also use your local library.
If you’re using a Mac, DevonAgent and DevonThink can help you a lot with organizing your searches and cross-referencing. DevonAgent prevents you from having to open hundreds of browser tabs, and DevonThink uses a very clever “fuzzy logic” search to find relevant things in your document collection. Although both apps are loved by academics, they’re invaluable to me as a writer.
Another great option for research and clippings is Roam Research (or its free competitor Obsidian). Think of them as digital scrapbooks where you can drop everything useful and find useful and relevant parts later.
Or go with a paper notebook.
Most importantly, document your research and don’t throw anything away.
Remember that you’ll be researching at all stages of the writing process, including during editing and fact-checking. Therefore, it can be very helpful to work with multiple monitors so that you can do the research queries on one while you continue writing on the other.
It’s often useful to write a chapter or scene first and do your research later. This helps you focus your research on what you need, and not disappear down a rabbit hole from which little productive writing comes out!
It’s also important to realize that the process of researching and writing your book is closely related. They’re all part of the same journey.
When you write, you not only generate new ideas, but you also begin to write down the book that will become the finished memoir or autobiography.
This is an interactive process.
The structure of your finished book will also influence how you write it and, therefore, how you research it.
Remember that oral research also plays an important role: If people, family members, eyewitnesses, etc. are still alive and willing, their memories and perspectives can be very useful.
Writing First Drafts
The most important thing to say about first drafts is that you do them!
That means you sit down and start writing. Even if you don’t feel like it. When you start writing, your resistance is quickly overcome and you get into a good state of mind.
The second thing I say about first drafts is that you shouldn’t edit them as you write. That’s why I recommend not thinking too much about chapters in the first draft stage – there will be plenty of opportunities later to organize your text and divide it into chapters.
Basically, everything that hinders you in writing your first draft needs to be gently pushed aside. That’s why sometimes it’s better to do your research after you’ve written a scene.
The third thing to say about first drafts is that they should be about anything and everything.
As a writer, you need to get out of your own way and not be too critical with your word choice, sentence structure, or anything else.
The reason for this is that you can only find your voice if you write your way to it. That means you’re writing a lot of things that aren’t the finished book.
The more you write, the more you learn about yourself and your writing voice.
You may not understand the subject of your memoir or autobiography until your first draft is finished. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s desirable.
Remember that your first draft should probably be just for you. Beware of letting critics in too early, even if they’re constructive.
If someone else reads your writing or sees your first drafts, that person or those people will likely have an impact on your creative writing process that you don’t want at this stage.
So, if you have a writing group or writing partner, wait until you’ve completed at least two first drafts before sharing the text.
Related: Why Creative Process Matters
The Path From First to Second Draft
First, put some distance between you and your first draft. If you don’t give yourself a break, you’ll have a hard time identifying the “plot holes” where you need to get your narrative going.
It’s about giving shape to the story – a story that you may not really understand until after your first draft.
Your second draft isn’t about tinkering with or polishing your first draft. It’s about completely rewriting the story, moving the pieces around in the overall structure to make it work.
This is where I personally find Scrivener very useful. Especially the index card mode in Corkboard. It allows me to move writing blocks around, sometimes almost intuitively (since cold logic rarely works well in creative endeavors), to find the flow of a piece.
When you move the blocks, it’s helpful to have a clear timeline at hand – either on paper or (my choice) in a program like Aeon Timeline. This timeline helps you anchor the chronological flow of events, so you’re freer to make thematic connections knowing that you can always insert a reference to where we’re in space and time.
There’s going to be some missing. That’s fine. Write it.
Do you notice anything unclear in your narrative? Clarify it. Explain it in a way that someone reading the story for the first time will understand.
Sometimes it’s a matter of contextualization: a “framing scene” before the action scene. It’s amazing how sometimes putting a later scene at the beginning of the work can help make everything clear and functional.
Wield a Scalpel
The last piece of advice I want to give you is to approach your second draft with a scalpel in hand. Cut it down, remove any fat you discover.
Creative work often (not always) benefits from being shorter. A more compact narrative moves important points in the story closer together and tightens the connective tissue between scenes in a more effective way.
Cut out scenes you don’t need, scenes that are too long, and scenes that are in the background and don’t move the story forward. The goal is to create a lean, mean storytelling machine that moves the story forward at all times.
This also means cutting limp sentences, unnecessary adjectives, and anything else that makes your text wordier than it needs to be.
Examples of Great Autobiographical Writing
Maya Angelou – a series of seven autobiographies, including the work that brought her international acclaim I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Vladimir Nabokov – covering his life until arrival in America in 1940, Speak Memory is known for the way in which it blends fiction with fact.
Helen Keller – written with the aid of a braille typewriter The Story of My Life was dedicated to Alexander Graham Bell, a lifelong friend and avid supporter of deaf and blind research.
Mark Twain – keen to tell stories to other human beings, rather than pen a dry account of his life, Twain arranged that most of his Autobiography remain unpublished for 100 years after his death in 1910. No doubt the amount of vitriol and sharp observation even of friends in the work was a big factor in this decision! Interestingly, most of his autobiography was dictated to a secretary, rather than written directly.