Sooner or later, many of us think 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 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 a whole thing – a 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 famous
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 more concerned with the meaning of life – whether by examining a specific period 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. 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 an 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 have to tell the story chronologically, 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 crucial moments and look at a period or a topic 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 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 and the ability to construct a well-argued piece of 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 autobiography, you should first be aware of the key elements that will ensure your autobiography stands out and engages readers.
Many factors 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 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 movie. In other words, it’s to engage the reader emotionally and keep them enthralled.
Otherwise, there’s no motivation to keep reading.
In 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 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
An excellent autobiography is a story told with strength and nuance. That’s why it matters to be clear about the story you want to tell and the key events that the story embraces.
Granted, this story may not be apparent when writing your autobiography begins. The story may not be clear to you until late in the writing and editing.
You may not even understand the story you’re telling until you revise. 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 assemble the necessary pieces.
And we’ll show you how to combine those pieces to create an excellent autobiography.
But before we go any further, let’s look at key elements that make a good autobiography.
When discussing a particular moment in your life story, you should be concerned with the spirit of the times – the so-called Zeitgeist.
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 how they acted and thought.
This creates a picture in the reader’s eye of what was happening around you then. That essential things were happening to you, or you were doing important things.
There’s something mysterious about a good autobiography.
Not everything in life is 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 arrogant and know 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 excellent 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 comprises a series of veils. In most cases, the reader will find himself relating parts of your story to his 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 profound mysteries in life that we all ponder occasionally and keep popping up.
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 apparent, which 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 decide what to do at certain stages. Or you come to a judgment or conclusion about something that you’ll probably change later 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 important because they mark turning points in the story of your life.
The Plot of Your Life
It’s constructive 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 essential 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, your autobiography.
Another critical 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 regarding your life purpose and how you define what’s important to you and what you want to accomplish.
But it’s helpful to be aware of these contextual shifts in your life and think about these seams as you write your autobiography.
Now let’s look at the key steps to writing your autobiography.
A Very Personal Journey
Run away if anyone tells you that there’s some standard template for writing an autobiography or memoir! Quick.
Writing and stories aren’t about squeezing experiences and memories into some template.
The author’s connection to the material is the most crucial thing in writing a good, meaningful work.
Writing is about how you see the world, understand your experiences, and want to share them with readers.
Writing is a personal journey that 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 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. How 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 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 the first few pages must appeal to you. Otherwise, you won’t get involved, and the book has left your universe forever!
So when thinking about, constructing, and writing your memoir or autobiography, be clear about your story’s 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 means 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 an excellent 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 is worth paying attention to in each scene!
The Two Treasure Chests
We all have two treasure chests regarding 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 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 tremendous 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 everything 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 you put yourself in the moment of the remembered events but see them as you experienced them then. 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 risk your memoir becoming a boring flashback instead of a compelling journey for the reader.
Connect with Your Inner Child
One particular technique worth mentioning when writing about childhood experiences is the “connect with your inner child” meditation. I first learned about it at the beautiful Plum Village retreat in France.
A guided meditation takes you back to your childhood and creates a connection you can access. Incredibly powerful in life and 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 then.
This technique of shifting perspective is highly 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 compelling ongoing narrative, telling your story in a non-linear way will probably help a lot.
Remember, you’re selecting events, not trying to tell everything that happened.
Therefore, not only can you select periods – which don’t have to be worked through in strict order, especially if you’re writing out your memoir thematically – but you can powerfully use nonlinear writing 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: 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 is 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 how it handles index cards on its “corkboard” has saved me more time than I care to remember in finding structure in writing and filmmaking.
Another excellent 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 exciting thing is that your truth becomes someone else’s truth through a magical transformation process.
Your mother’s truth becomes your truth, your neighbor’s truth becomes your truth, and 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. If you do it right, you can present it in a way that speaks to others.
You write your memoir to express 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 happened (as best you can remember it). This is part of a primary, unwritten contract you make with future readers when writing 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 your story isn’t an objective fact; it’s your truth.
It’s the narrative that makes your story interesting to your readers. Readers like narratives!
Hopefully, you’ll write your story so 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 before you even start putting words on the page.
A Structural Approach to Autobiography and Memoir
You don’t have to pressure yourself to figure out the structure of your narrative from the start. You 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 and spit the fragments out, knowing you can later group them into a form. That’s tremendously liberating. It’s how I’ve made films, how I write long texts, and how I write articles – including this article.
I’ve no idea 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 many different ideas and notes, photos, and videos 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 into which you pour your experiences so they come out transformed.
You’ll have to go through everything several times. You’ll have to go through your story several times.
First, you write down everything you remember, everything you think is essential, and 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 are essential in all forms of writing, even in memoirs. 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 first hearing 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 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 got a taste of a larger culture. Out there.
I was amazed.
Use Dictation to Write Your Memoir
Sometimes when I write, 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 my brother and I were up against the local giant nettle patch when I was about twelve years old. 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 reminded me 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. I’d have lost an eye if it had been just an inch further away.
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 quickly 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 particular 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 word’s origin 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 excellent memoir writing can do: a series of independent yet interconnected vines that together form a whole.
I don’t see a linear path when I think about my life this way. Things have happened randomly; I’ve been in one place and then another. Or in the same place in different periods.
I don’t see my life as a 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 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 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.
What 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, many prompts can be handy.
We’ve already discussed the two treasure chests above.
But many beneficial questions 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 can’t I 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 furious? 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 necessary for your memoir. And more often than not, a more resounding 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 discover how profound forces and influences have shaped your reality.
Ultimately, you’re the only person who knows your motivations for writing your memoir. There’s no need for you to explain 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 result should be more significant than a simple retelling of your life.
Perhaps it’s about creating a legacy, leaving something that will stay with you beyond your time, years, and 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 reflect on them with awareness, acceptance, and understanding?
Awareness will lead us to change our 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 there are “scene objectives” in scenes – things the character wants and is trying to achieve.
This isn’t always true, but it’s 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 leading to your character’s next destination.
Remember that these transitions will become more apparent and more evident as you write and move into revision. You don’t have to have a set structure for your memoir. However, you need a series of vivid scenes, fast or slow sections, that 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 how you write your autobiography or memoir, but it can benefit you as you reflect on the ebb and flow of your life.
We go 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.
Overcoming the significant obstacles of life usually requires inner change and realization. When we overcome life’s walls, we learn an important lesson that we take into the next phase.
I 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 corresponds to the level of drama. This was a precious 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 that involved real struggle, emotion, and conflict. In this way, it served as a map for my memoir.
So I took the significant 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 significant events before but never went into enough detail to 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 essential 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 essential 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.
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 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 not to 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.
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, artist, and human being, you must deal with them honestly. And do so with as much compassion as possible.
In other words, you must go through the same process of soul-searching and profound inner discovery as you’d with any other complicated 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 difficult to achieve with traditional radial mind maps.
You can also use free online tools like XMind, 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 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 the 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.
An outline aims 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, you’ll need to track down specific facts and connections at some point in your writing.
You can do most of this research on the Internet.
There are now so many excellent online resources for writers. These include accessible 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 organize 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 academics love both apps, 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 valuable 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 constructive 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 helpful 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 researching and writing your book are closely related. They’re all part of the same journey.
When you write, you generate new ideas and 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 beneficial.
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.
Everything that hinders your writing your first draft must be gently pushed aside. That’s why sometimes it’s better to 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 way and not be too critical with your word choice, sentence structure, or anything else.
This is because you can only find your voice if you write your way to it. That means you’re writing many 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. 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 impact the creative writing process, which 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 difficulty 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 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 and moving the pieces around in the overall structure to make it work.
This is where I 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, having a clear timeline is helpful – 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 so 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 incredible how sometimes putting a later scene at the beginning of the work can help make everything clear and functional.
Wield a Scalpel
The last advice I want to give you is to approach your second draft with a scalpel in hand. Cut it down, and remove any fat you discover.
Creative work often (not always) benefits from being shorter. A more compact narrative moves essential points in the story closer together and effectively tightens the connective tissue between scenes.
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 continuously moves the story forward.
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 he arrived in America in 1940, Speak Memory is known for how 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 he died in 1910. No doubt the amount of vitriol and sharp observation, even of friends in the work, was a significant factor in this decision! Interestingly, most of his autobiography was dictated to a secretary rather than written directly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an autobiography?
An autobiography is a self-written account of an individual’s life, often detailing personal experiences, emotions, and reflections.
What should be included in an autobiography?
An autobiography should include significant events, relationships, challenges, achievements, and personal growth experiences. It should also offer insights into the author’s personality, values, and motivations.
How should I begin my autobiography?
Begin your autobiography with an engaging introduction that captures the reader’s attention. You can start with a memorable moment, an important event, or a unique aspect of your life.
What is the appropriate writing style for an autobiography?
A: The writing style for an autobiography should be honest, engaging, and descriptive. It should capture your voice and personality, connecting readers with your experiences and emotions.
How do I organize my autobiography?
Organize your autobiography in chronological order or around specific themes. You can divide it into chapters, focusing on different stages of your life or significant aspects of your personality.
How do I maintain reader interest throughout my autobiography?
To maintain reader interest, use vivid descriptions, create engaging anecdotes, and vary the pace and tone of your writing. Share unique perspectives and include moments of self-reflection to keep the reader engaged.
How do I approach sensitive or controversial topics in my autobiography?
Approach sensitive or controversial topics with honesty and sensitivity. Be aware of the potential impact on others, and consider using discretion or pseudonyms to protect privacy.
What should I focus on when writing about my childhood?
Focus on significant moments, relationships, and experiences that shaped your personality, values, and beliefs. Describe the environment, culture, and people that influenced your early years.
How do I conclude my autobiography?
Conclude your autobiography by summarizing your experiences, reflecting on the lessons learned, and sharing your hopes for the future. Consider leaving the reader with a final thought or message that encapsulates the essence of your life story.
What should I consider before publishing my autobiography?
Before publishing your autobiography, edit and revise the manuscript, fact-check for accuracy, and seek feedback from trusted readers. Consider legal and ethical implications, and explore various publishing options, including traditional publishers, self-publishing, or digital platforms.