How to Write an Autobiography: The Secret Tips to Finally Get Started
Something unusual just might happen to you when you start working with your family's photo collection:
You may suddenly get this urge to start writing about what's happened to you in your life and why it meant so much to you.
And what's even more surprising, you may also have an overwhelming desire to ask your loved ones to start writing the same about their lives!
Why Write Your Autobiography
As you organize and label your photos, especially older ones, what happens is you will start to put together pieces of the larger “story” of family members' lives. Each of their lives becomes like one giant puzzle that you're assembling back together.
At this point, I've found their “Life Stories” now either become more clear to you, or sometimes … much less. You may have thought you knew someone really well until you discover photos that show a whole other part of their life you never knew.
For example, I showed my Mom some photos that she hadn't seen in a long time when we were together over the December holidays. And immediately, all of these stories just came gushing out of her. She would point to a picture, and then another, and tell me all about it and why this moment in her life was so important to her.
Well, all I kept thinking at the time was, “What happens when I look at this photo 25 years from now. I probably won't remember any of those fascinating things you just told me about. Can't you just write all of what you just said down for me?”
I greatly fear the time when members of my small family pass. In addition to the obvious emotional reasons, I am worried photos will not be enough to help me remember all of these important details. And it's all of these great details that really hold together their complete “Life's Stories.”
Is it unrealistic of me to wish we spent time in our lives now recording our stories to pass on to others we will leave behind later?
The problem with this wish is many of us have never written anything that seems to be this monumental. I mean, since possibly school papers, belated “catch-up” emails to distant relatives are probably the longest things many of us have written in many, many years!
And some people hire biographers to write it for them because it's often perceived as being so much work. We're possibly talking about an entire book here.
For someone who's not an experienced writer, they might think writing down everything that's happened to them so far could take a second lifetime!
How to Realistically Start Writing Your Autobiography When It Seems Too Hard
Not too long ago, I was having an email discussion back and forth with my Canadian friend Art Taylor. I was asking him what's making him happy right now and he happened to bring up that he and his wife Alison had recently signed up for a weekly writing-group on the art of writing memoirs.
This of course piqued my curiosity.
Not only did I not really understand exactly what a memoir really is, but it occurred to me that something they were learning might help my family and me figure out that secret “instruction manual” to make this whole autobiography thing a lot easier.
The secret to this problem might just surprise you.
I've put together the highlights of our conversation below in an easier to follow article format. Art's answers are in quotes.
What is an Autobiography
So a biography is an account of someone's life written by someone else. We've all seen those massively thick books on someone influential in our history that an author has written about.
But when it comes to writing about our own lives, I've really only heard of two different types of books: an autobiography and a memoir. And between the two, I never really understood if there was even a difference.
Isn't a memoir just a fancy emotional version of an autobiography that only famous people write?
You don’t need to be famous to write a valuable autobiography, family history, or memoir. Everybody has many stories to share with family and friends.
Remember, history may be recorded about only rich or famous people, but everybody contributes to the history of the human race in his or her own way.
YOU are important to yourself, your family, and your friends. Why not share your stories with the present and future generations, just you probably wish your family members had shared their stories with their future generations?
There can be differences between a memoir and autobiography, but the line between them can be hazy.
At least in my opinion, an autobiography is about the life of the writer (unless it's ghost-written for somebody) and deals with as many aspects of that person's life as he/she chooses to reveal.
Other people and events are incidental to the main body of writing. Particular attention is usually given to birth, marriage, and death information, along with highlights of many aspects of the subject's life.
What Is a Memoir
At this point, I thought Art was going to tell me a memoir is just a condensed version of an autobiography. Instead of your whole life being written down in 500 pages, your whole life in a memoir would be reduced down into like 200 pages but cover the same information.
A memoir, while it can be highly autobiographical, is not necessarily so.
It might concentrate primarily on the writer's memories of one or more aspects of the writer's life, such as his/her travels; hobbies; career; nuclear family; a particular parent, sibling, or other relative or a close friend.
By definition, it basically deals with ‘memories', regardless of what the memories are about. Birth, marriage, and death information might easily be excluded, unless the writer is deliberately aiming for an autobiographical story.
Well Art has certainly been more enlightening than Chevy Chase. That “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” was an entertaining film but obviously taught me nothing about memoir-ing!
So a memoir is more like what we think of as an autobiography, but really without any rules:
I could, in theory, write an entire memoir exclusively about the vacations and travels I've taken.
A different memoir could be written about my memories of family Christmas and other holiday traditions or about my accomplishments and honors achieved.
Yet another version could deal only with family stories I remember from growing up.
Still another version could be about my friendships with Paul and Dave, two of my best friends for well over 40 years. In fact, they could be the major characters in the story, with my memories of our activities together providing the continuity.
By this point of the conversation, I was starting to feel very encouraged!
The missing secret for many of us who haven't even been able to write a paragraph or two could just be in the idea that writing our autobiography or “Life Story” needs to start off as — A story, not The story.
If you are having problems writing even that first sentence, the problem is probably based on this ingrained understanding that you have to write about everything, or there's no point in writing anything.
Instead, you could start small. Consider writing about just one topic or occurrence from your life.
Or, if you are still determined to be thorough, start out just focusing on one topic but take it through completion before moving on to others.
Topic Ideas to Write About
Art provided a nice list of possible categories or even “chapters” that would be an excellent starting point for almost anyone.
- Birth to start of Kindergarten
- Elementary School Years
- High School Years
- College / University / Other Post-Secondary Education Years
- School Days
- Turning Points
- Special Occasions
- Romance(s) / Courtship / Marriage / Children
- Career / Work Years
- Retirement Years
- Family – Immediate (Parents, Siblings, Children); Extended (Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, etc.)
- Family Tree Personal / Family Medical History
- Friends and Acquaintances (school, college, work, social activities, etc.)
- Hobbies / Vocational Activities
- Sports / Recreation Activities
- Travel / Vacations
- Places Lived
- Home(s) Lived In
- Favourite Foods and Recipes
- Holiday Traditions
- Other Traditions / Customs
- Awards / Honours Received
- Spiritual Journey
- Personal Historical Timeline
- Clubs / Associations / Organizations
- Military Service / Volunteer Activities
- Historical Event Witnessed or Lived Through
- How I met ….. What’s important to me about …..
- Why ….. is important to me. How and why I feel the way I do about …..
- Why ….. is my favourite hobby / sport / activity
- Favourite Photograph(s)
All of these topics I suggested will not necessarily be included in any single memoir. Some of the topics in the list could hold no appeal for you. They are just topics that many people want to include and the list is meant just as a suggestion of topics to write about.
How to Choose Your Topics
So how can someone decide which of these possible topics to include in your memoir? There are just so many that could easily be enticing.
I wondered, if someone isn't careful to be selective, they may end up including so many topics, they might as well just write a complete autobiography — from birth up until the current time.
One way to help decide what to include and what to exclude is to decide who you are writing a memoir for and why it's important to you to write it.
You might well choose one set of topics if you're writing for yourself, as catharthsis or therapy but a different set if you're writing to document your life for future generations.
Of course, the answers to these questions will vary from person to person, and possibly for the same person at different times of life.
Organizing Your Topics
So if you choose multiple topics, my next thought is how one would organize them.
How are you going to personally choose to structure the topics you have chosen. Will any kind of order be important to you?
The chosen topics might or might not be in chronologic order. However, the topics I do include I've decided will likely be pretty much in chronologic order, at least within each general topic area.
The general topics will also likely be in chronologic order where possible. If different topics happen concurrently, such as career and vacation travel, I'll need to decide at some point which comes first in the overall story, unless I decide to write the entire thing in something like HTML for random access to any chosen topic.
This is one benefit of writing for a web site or blog, both definitely publishing possibilities to consider. The reader can choose to jump from topic to topic at will, rather than being stuck with the writer’s choice of sequence.
Why Memoirs Are So Exciting
This is obviously just the starting point in the process of writing your “Life Story.” But, I hope it at least fills you with optimism that any of us can write about our own life.
Not only do you not have to be someone famous to be worthy of your own book, but with the option of a memoir, you don't even need to write about your entire life like most cover in autobiographies.
I love this now well-known saying from 2009 that was inspired by the portability and camera quality of Apple's iPhone:
The best camera is the one you have with you.
~ Chase Jarvis (Photographer)
It makes me wonder if the best moments that have ever happened in your entire life, will someday be the stories you took the time to write down.
Have you ever wanted to write about your “Life Story”? If so, tell me about what you would like to write about and what you've accomplish so far comments below.