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Writing Your Autobiography

Updated on April 14, 2013
drmiddlebrook profile image

Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

While anyone can write a biography, only you can write your autobiography.
While anyone can write a biography, only you can write your autobiography. | Source

An autobiography is the biography of a person that is narrated by himself or herself. Anyone can write a biography (the story of a life), but only you can write your autobiography.

Every person's life is filled with stories, and yours is too. Part of my life story, for example, would include among many other stories, personal experiences from my career as both an author and an editor. I've worked as a professional writer and editor for magazines as well as for corporate marketing and communications materials. In addition, I have written or ghost-written, in addition to scores of articles, several books, and I've edited books written by other authors, some of them autobiographical in nature. The autobiographical books I've edited have been written by people who were either at or nearing the end of their professional careers. But, it is a mistake to think you have to be a certain age before your life story becomes worth telling. It is possible to write an autobiography as soon as you feel you have something to say. You might want to write a book to document and keep as a personal memoir, or it may be your goal to share the stories of your life with others in the form of an autobiography.

Your autobiography is a collection of the stories from your life up to a specific point in time. A ten year-old with a good vocabulary, excellent memory, and a keenness for asking questions (until he or she gets answers), could write about everything that has happened in his or her life, things that have influenced who he or she has become, up to age ten. And that would be his or her autobiography. But, you might be thinking, what reason could a ten year-old have for writing an autobiography? And that is the question that brings me to the next part of this Hub on writing your autobiography.

A cherished antique, this is a picture of my mother's piano that I inherited. Keepsakes and mementos, big and small, become part of our lives, and part of our life stories.
A cherished antique, this is a picture of my mother's piano that I inherited. Keepsakes and mementos, big and small, become part of our lives, and part of our life stories. | Source

Reason for Writing

The work of collecting information for your autobiography will call for conjuring recollections and pulling together memories and experiences that you will need to tell your story. Your task will seem less daunting, however, and will be made much easier if you know, before writing even one word, your reason for writing. With this in mind, a good place to begin thinking about your life story is to answer the question: Why am I writing my autobiography?

Your reason does not have to be elaborate. It can be simple. Maybe you believe that your story, in the form of a book, would make a wonderful gift to give to loved ones at the next family reunion. Or, perhaps you've learned some special and valuable lessons in your life—in interesting and entertaining ways—and you’re sure others might enjoy reading and learning from them too. No matter what your reason is, you will need to know and to understand it, before you start writing. So, think about it: Why have you decided to write your life story? Once you know why you are writing, be sure to write down your reason. Why? Because you will use it later to help you decide what to include as major points in your narrative. If you do this, once your book is complete, you will know that it is well suited for the reason why you wrote it.

This is my grandmother's buffet. An antique, my mother loved it, and now it has tons of memories (and stories). I inherited it, and now its stories are mine to treasure.
This is my grandmother's buffet. An antique, my mother loved it, and now it has tons of memories (and stories). I inherited it, and now its stories are mine to treasure. | Source

Consider Your Audience

Now it is time to decide who your intended audience is. You will need to make decisions about how you say what you write (the quality of your writing), while considering who will see the final version of your book. That means you will need to think about who will read what you write before you write.

If you’re writing your autobiography for your eyes only, your approach can be very casual, and you can ignore completely, if you want, rules of grammar, sentence structure, and even clarity. After all, you will know what you mean no matter how you say what you say. But, if you intend to publish your life story, then you will need to adhere closely to the rules of grammar, punctuation, and good sentence structure, in order to enhance and ensure clarity and readability. Also, the quantity and quality of details and explanations you will need to include as you describe events and experiences will change based on whether your book is to be read by those familiar with you and your background, or by total strangers.

Just about every item you can see was a house-warming or other gift given to me by family members or close friends. I use many of these things every day, and each has a story behind it and, for me, great sentimental value.
Just about every item you can see was a house-warming or other gift given to me by family members or close friends. I use many of these things every day, and each has a story behind it and, for me, great sentimental value. | Source

Organize Your Thoughts

When writing an autobiography or any kind of book, you will need a way to organize the information you want to include. Your life story, like any other book, will need to have at least three distinct parts, and these are: An introduction/beginning, a body/middle, and a conclusion. But, before even starting to think about what you will say in your introduction, there is some foundational work you need to do. You will need to decide how you will organize your narrative.

Many autobiographies use a theme or a core concept (determination, courage, persistence, overcoming obstacles, and/or joy despite hardship) that the author believes exemplifies the totality of their life so far.

Is there a recurring element that you feel has become a major driving force in your life, or is there one single thing that has greatly influenced your development or your life’s progression? Do you own a collection of keepsakes or mementos that could be used as a starting point for telling many of the stories of your life? Are you able to find underlying connections between experiences you could use as a central topic or idea around which to organize the points of your narrative? If so, then employing a theme might be a great way for you to unify the major topics you will present as you compose your autobiography. If you choose to use a theme to tell your story, keep in mind that you will need to introduce it early in your narrative, perhaps in the first paragraph of the first chapter, and then you will need to connect your theme to all the major points in your life.

Another antique that once belonged to my grandmother, this table sits in my bedroom. Handmade, there is a story connected to it that tells why and how it was created.
Another antique that once belonged to my grandmother, this table sits in my bedroom. Handmade, there is a story connected to it that tells why and how it was created. | Source

Another way to organize your narrative is to present topics chronologically. If you choose to write chronologically, you will simply begin at the beginning and go forward from there, conveying points about your life from birth to where you plan to end your book. Alternatively, you might choose to start at a midpoint in your life, or at some pivotal point that you feel has profoundly influenced your whole life. Perhaps something happened in elementary school (maybe your family moved to another town or state, your parents got divorced, or a parent or grandparent died) that marked a milestone or became a turning point for you, influencing the progression of your life. It is possible for one day, one event, or even one person to make such a strong impact that it can influence thoughts and actions throughout someone’s life.

After finding a good way (one that works best for you) to organize the points of your narrative, you will be ready to develop your initial outline.

Developing an Outline

After you’ve homed in on your reason for writing and know how you will organize your narrative, you are ready to begin developing an outline of the major points of your autobiography (points you will discuss in much more detail once you begin writing from your outline).

It might help to think of your outline as a road map that will take you on a journey to the destination that is your life story. It will be organized based on the method you chose, and it will adhere to a theme, logically follow the chronology of your life, or be founded upon a day, an event, or a person exerting the most impact on your life, so far. Your outline will consist of the major roads and highways of your life, that extend your theme or organizing concept, and it will also have many side roads and lanes that will be sub-topics in your narrative.

In preparing the first version of your outline, you will be primarily concerned with the major roads and highways that will lead to your destination. After jotting these down, add any side roads or lanes that are connected as these will become details and finer points, the stories and incidences told from your perspective that have made your life-long journey interesting and/or significant.

It almost never snows in Houston! This photo reminds of one day when it did, and I took this picture of my back yard to document the day.
It almost never snows in Houston! This photo reminds of one day when it did, and I took this picture of my back yard to document the day. | Source

Major roads and highways might include things such as your family background, including why or how your family came to live in the region where you were born; where and when you were born and memories others have about your birth and infancy; your culture, your values and beliefs; major events from your childhood, adolescent, and adult life, and so on. Each major road or highway can have several side roads or lanes extending from it. These experiences and incidences will ultimately become sub-topics making up the middle/body of your life story. These should be tied to your theme, or demonstrate a strong link to the method you chose to organize your narrative.

Be generous in your details and explanations. Write so that your reader feels as though he or she is present in the moment, and that what you’re talking about is happening to him or her. Describe emotions as well as sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of touch. Conveying sensory details will create a "rich" experience, allowing you to make strong emotional connections with your readers.

Be sure to end on a strong note. Save for the end of your story the point with the most profound impact.

My dolls, my first novel (Beax Rivers is my pen name) and my collection of wooden flowers, are all keepsakes from my own life story. To find out about my first novel (shown above, Silver: Currents of Change), visit mybeaxrivers.com.
My dolls, my first novel (Beax Rivers is my pen name) and my collection of wooden flowers, are all keepsakes from my own life story. To find out about my first novel (shown above, Silver: Currents of Change), visit mybeaxrivers.com. | Source

Summary and Conclusion

Finally, you will summarize your book by connecting, once again, with your theme or other major driving force or forces in your life.

Helpful Final Points

  • Read several autobiographies before writing yours. I remember, vividly, the autobiographies I read when I was a child. The good ones inspired me to want to write, and I believe that reading how other people have told their life stories can help you tell yours more effectively.
  • Use family photo albums and other pictures to help jar your memory. You could also consider interviewing family members for information you want to include but aren’t sure about.
  • Don't be afraid to get help with editing your final draft of your book. Even professional writers need editors and proofreaders. It can be nearly impossible to see or to catch your own errors. And remember, asking someone to edit your work does not mean you have to implement any or all changes they may suggest. You will always have the final word on what is included, or not, in your book.

    For help with content editing, you might ask a family member to look over your manuscript to see if there might be errors of fact or omissions that you might need to consider. When it comes to writing structure and mechanics, you might consider paying a professional editor (especially if you plan to publish your book), or ask someone you know and whose opinion you respect, to proofread your book.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 15 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Very helpful suggestions. Just curious, what do you think is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? Are they one and the same? Thanks.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
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      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 15 months ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you, Jacklee lm, for your visit and comments. And, thanks for asking such a great and interesting question. You know? Some people make no distinction at all between an autobiography and a memoir. Even Amazon.com puts them together for the purpose of categorizing books for sale. However, in the world of publishing, there is a difference, and the autobiography and the memoir are not exactly the same thing.

      An autobiography is what a person writes when they want to present a chronological account of their whole life, from when they were born up to where they are as they are writing the book. A memoir, on the other hand, does not have to abide by a timeline. It is what a person writes who wants to use their memories to highlight or showcase what they see as important parts/facets of their life. A memoir is a a set of recollections, related or unrelated ones, that might be inspired by events, emotions, and phases leading to a person’s physiological or psychological development. A memoir might present the author's "lessons learned" in life, or it could be that the author is sharing his/her recollections with others only for the purpose of entertainment.

    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 15 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Thanks for the detail explanation. I guess by your definition, I have it right. I am working on my memoir though I try to do it in a chronological order.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 15 months ago from Texas, USA

      Congrats, Jackclee lm, on writing your memoir. That is a great and exciting undertaking, and I wish you the best as you move forward. So many people say they want to do what you're doing, and you're actually doing it. Good for you.

    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 15 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Thanks for the encouragement. I actually got inspired by a good friend who was writing his memoir but unexpectedly, past away due to illness. I wanted to write my story before I forget them.

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