Writing Your Autobiography and Reflecting on Your Life
Are you interested in writing your autobiography?
Wondering where to start your memoir?
Need some tips to capture your personal life story?
So, you want to write your autobiography! Congratulations! That’s an exciting venture. Many people find that writing their autobiography helps them gain a better overall perspective over their life. There may be no better way of taking a walk down memory lane and learning more about yourself
On the other hand, creating your life story can also seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin or what to include in your autobiography. The good news is that you can work at your own pace and record your life story the way you want. You don't even need to be an accomplished author. Some may want to start with a collection of essays. Autobiographical essays are a great way to piece together some of your life-writing. Others want to jump right in and author an entire book. Let’s start with some basics.
Biography vs. Autobiography
What’s the difference between a biography and an autobiography? Biography definition: an account of another person’s life other than the writer. A biography can be told by one person’s, or more than one person’s, points of view, and is usually as close to a complete story of another person’s life as possible.
A biographer should have either first-hand knowledge or a well-researched knowledge of the subject. When writing a biography of another person, the writer should remain as impartial as possible. A biography should be a retelling of events without the writer’s personal feelings or point of view.
Autobiography definition: a telling of one’s own life and life experiences. By nature, an autobiography, or memoir, is highly personal and not impartial. In addition, an autobiography does not have to be a complete story of one’s entire life. As the writer, you can choose to tell only certain stories while leaving others out. You can talk about specific people who have been important to you, and not mention anyone you’d rather not talk about. Or you may choose to focus on only a certain period in your life. The choice is yours.
When writing an autobiography, the writer can interject their own personal thoughts and feelings at any point in the book. The process of including such personal opinions invites the reader to understand the writer’s life on a much deeper level and from the writer’s own point of view.
Choosing Your Point of View
As your life story is your personal story to tell, the way in which you tell your story can also be a personal choice. When writing your autobiography, you have three tenses to choose from.
- First person
- Second person
- Third person
First person uses the character I (yourself) as the story teller. The story becomes your own personal account of events and occurrences throughout your life.
Second person uses the word you, referring to the reader. You are still telling the story, but you are putting the reader in your place instead. This tense can pull the reader into the story, but it is difficult to maintain throughout an autobiography.
Third person uses words like he and she to refer to the characters within the story, including yourself. An outside observer is telling the story from their point of view rather than your own.
Choosing Your Story Tense
When crafting your memoir, you also have three tenses to choose from.
- Past tense
- Present tense
- Future tense
Tense indicates whether the events have occurred in the past, the present or the future. The past tense is comfortable for most people as they are naturally recalling events from the past. Present tense may be enticing for more stylistic writers. This tense can create a sense of immediacy and excitement in the writing. Future tense can be quite difficult to manage when writing an autobiography.
All that being told, most autobiographies, or memoirs, are told from a first-person point of view in the past tense. After all, you are the person telling your own life story and the events have all happened in the past.
How to Tell Your Personal Life Story
Many people who sit down to write their autobiography struggle with starting the process. It seems like with many things in life, starting can be the biggest challenge. You’ll be happy to know that you don’t have to start at any particular point.
You may want to tell your story chronologically: from birth to childhood to adulthood to today. You may want to start with today, then work your way backward. You may want to start with a particular day or event and move forward from there. Or you may decide to tell stories as they come to you and worry about organizing them later. The possibilities are almost endless, and there is no right or wrong answer here. The order and manner in which you record your story is completely up to you. You may also want to look back at the turning points of life when consider how to write your life story.
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The Memoir Process
- Select a theme. Will the story of your life have an overarching theme? Perhaps your theme can summarize a recurring issue in your life. Or your theme may be based upon the biggest lesson you want to pass on to your current family and descendants. Don’t worry if you can’t think of your theme now. Oftentimes, a theme can rise naturally as you journey through the writing process. So, if you’re not sure about what you would choose as a theme now, just keep it in the back of your mind and simply start writing.
- Create an outline. While you are free to tell your story in any order you’d like, it may help you to create an outline in advance. Your outline can be a timeline of events if you choose. An outline can help keep you on track during the writing process. And an outline can help you see any gaps in advance of writing. It can help you keep tabs on what you’ve written about and what you have yet to write about, as well as help you remember a person or event you may have forgotten.
- Write. Write. This part is simple. Just free yourself up to write for some time periods without interruption. Don’t forget to add an interesting title to your work.
When you’re done writing, organize your story into chapters for easier reading.
- Edit. Edit. After you’ve completed your first draft, take a break. Put your manuscript down for a week or two. This will allow you to distance yourself from what you’ve just written. Then take the time to finetune and edit your story. This is also your time to check and double check facts. Be sure that your memory is accurate when you recall events. When you’ve got your story written, edited, and refined to the best of your ability, hire a professional copyeditor who will catch any typos, misspellings, word misuse, punctuation problems, and make your writing stronger. Hiring a good copyeditor may be one of the more expensive parts of your process, but it will be money well spent. You wouldn’t want to spend so much time writing your life story and have embarrassing errors throughout that take away from your credibility as well as the readers’ experience.
- Publish your story. Unless you’re a celebrity or a well-known contributor to society, most people look toward self-publishing to print and bind their autobiography. There are many options here, from your local printer to online publishing to a self-publishing house that will create multiple copies of a softcover or hardcover book version of your memoir. Be sure to research this part thoroughly, as there are companies that will overcharge you or take advantage of you.
Tips for Creating Your Autobiography
The more time you take in advance to plan, the more comfortable you’ll find yourself in the writing process. Doing the ‘work’ in advance gets the nitty gritty out of the way and frees you up to just write later.
Try to resist editing as you write. It may be a good idea to turn that internal editor off during the creative process. You’ll have plenty of time to go back and fix things later, perhaps reorder events or find a better way to convey a thought or image. The journey of writing your memoir is not about perfection, but about getting your story on paper—or audio or video. You can work on the finetuning once you’ve told your story.
Keep it simple. Avoid the temptation to write in flowery language or use clichés. If you wouldn’t normally speak a word or words, then don’t write it. Just be yourself, be honest, and be kind.
What Should I Include in My Memoir?
The great news is that you are the author of your own autobiography. So, what is included—and not included—is up to your sole discretion. If there are events and people that you’d rather not write about, then you are completely free to leave them out.
To get you started, here are some common topics that are often included in your autobiographical outline:
- When/where you were born
- Background on your father and mother
- Your childhood years
- Your teenage years
- Childhood friends
- High School
- Family traditions
- Your education
- Your work experience/career
- Family members and relationships
- Hopes for the future
- Local, regional, national, and world events
- Marriage/romantic relationships
- Life lessons
- Family tree
- Special occasions
- Medical history
- And much more!
Keeping Your Autobiography Organized
Like any other story, your autobiography outline will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And throughout your book, there will be ups and downs, happy times, sad times, and everything in between.
If you choose to write your life story as it comes to you, then you may want to store each completed story in a folder according to time period (by decade) or age range (childhood, teen years, etc.). Then when you are done crafting your autobiography, you simply have to dive into each folder and put those individual stories in order. Don’t forget to create transitions between stories and to separate your stories into chapters for easier readability.
You may also wish to organize your autobiography according to theme (firsts, milestones, etc.) or according to anecdotal qualities (funny things that tie events together). Or you may create your own form of organization.
Whatever you choose, the most important things are to create an outline or a way to organize yourself in advance, free yourself up to write without your internal editor, and revise your life story until you are happy with it. Keep it simple and be yourself.
Many people find that writing their autobiography is cathartic or therapeutic. When you look back on your life, you may make some additional revelations about yourself and about others. The results can be not only revealing but informative for your entire family. Whatever your journey is, we wish you the best of luck in writing your life story. Get ready to be amazed!