What's your story? Anyone who has lived a full life has something fascinating to share with the world. The trick to writing an autobiography is to treat it like any good story: it should have a protagonist (you), a central conflict, and a cast of fascinating characters to keep people engaged. You may want to think about a certain theme or idea that has been present in your daily life to revolve your story around. Read on to learn how to craft the story of your life and polish your writing to make it sing.
Incorporate dialogue into your autobiography to make it more personal, recommends history professor Robert Gerlich at Loyola University in New Orleans. Consider including humor when it's appropriate. For example, if you're writing about how you got lost at Disneyland when you were 10 years old and how the experience helped you learn to face obstacles, problem solve and overcome your fears, you might write, "The attendant at Splash Mountain said, 'Are you OK? Did you get separated from your family?' I quickly replied with as much bravado as I could muster, 'Nah, I'm fine. My eyes are just wet from the ride.' I didn't want her to know I was crying."
Also, it’s important to know who you’re writing your life story for. Writing for your family and friends is great! But it requires a different perspective than writing for publication. If you’re interested in getting your life story published by a traditional publishing house, then you’ll need a whole different perspective than if you’re self-publishing your memoirs.
There is a good chance that if you haven’t had to write a bio already, that you may have to in the future. A bio is required of many job applicants, it is used on many networking sites, freelancers have to have one for potential clients and if you have a website or blog connected to your business, you should probably have one. Bios provide a concise summary of who a person is and what they do, while at the same time, they allow a bit of personality to come through. There are basically two main functions your bio should perform: 1) establish your credentials and qualifications; 2) create enough interest so the reader will want to know more.
Weave in themes. Use the major themes of your life as a way to tie stories together, connecting your past and your present. Aside from the central conflict, what themes have followed you throughout your life? A fondness for certain holidays, your fascination with a certain place that you visited over and over, a certain type of guy you've always fallen for, a rich spiritual life you fall back on again and again. Bring up the themes every so often to help form a cohesive picture of your life.
If the project becomes too much for you at any point, remember that writing an autobiography takes time. Take the pressure off. Relax. This is your autobiography. You can make it as brief or as complete as you like, but don't expect to write it quickly. It may take years. If you want to finish fast, you might try the $14.95 Memorygrabber software I mentioned early. The publisher offers numerous free downloadable pages on their website, so you can decide if that approach will be useful or not.
What were the narrator’s desires in the memoir? What was motivating the narrator to share this particular story with the reader? Often, memoirs can be cathartic for the writer. Perhaps the writer was trying to process a year of grieving and loss, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, or perhaps the writer was trying to describe a childhood in a concentration camp, as Spiegelman does in his memoir Maus. Consider the motivations of the writer for putting down their story and presenting it to readers.
If you graduated from high school despite struggling with dyslexia, you may have a powerful story about perseverance. If you became hugely successful in your career, perhaps your story is rooted in diligence with a dash of luck. While researching this idea in the course of writing the book Writing Your Legacy (WD Books), Richard Campbell and co-author Cheryl Svensson focused on the concept of life themes, developed by the father of gerontology James E. Birren. In the January 2017 Writer’s Digest, Campbell explains why the 10 core legacy themes are an essential piece in puzzling together your memoir. Below, he breaks down each element and poses questions sure to prompt a personal response from writers.
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Use chapter divisions to give the book structure. Chapters are useful because they allow you to move on from discussing certain life periods or events. There's a reason we have the expression that we've "closed a chapter" or "opened a new chapter" in life, and it's even more applicable when discussing an autobiography. Chapter breaks allow you to skip forward 10 years, go back in time, or start describing a new theme without jarring the reader too much.
1. “Declare yourself” to your colleagues at work. Doug Conant, the much-admired former CEO of Campbell Soup and founder of Conant Leadership (and one of my favorite people), is an introvert who’s not inclined to schmooze and self-disclose. So he scheduled “Declare Yourself” meetings, one at a time, with each of his direct reports. The purpose of these meetings was to tell his employees his story: how he liked to work, his management philosophy, and the things and people that mattered to him most. (We at Quiet Revolution are partnering with Conant Leadership to develop a “Declare Yourself” tool that you can use with your colleagues. Stay tuned on that.)
Determine the key actions and obstacles in your story. Once you have a sense of what desire or want you want to explore in your memoir, you can identify the actions and obstacles your narrator must overcome to achieve the desire line. Obstacles or challenges will give the story stakes and motivate your reader to keep turning the pages of your memoir. You are the driver of the action in your story and a story isn’t very exciting if it doesn’t have any driving action.
Review your outline again and imagine that is is a web becoming ever more intricate. Every spider web begins with a single supporting thread that anchors all others. Then the spider lays key connecting threads, to which it attaches many, many smaller lines. Watch an animated video of a web being built. Your initial scenes of obstacles and failure make up the supporting threads to which all others in your story web connect.
Have you ever read an autobiography? Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for example, is an exceptionally powerful one. “DEAR SON: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” That’s how it starts. But, Benjamin Franklin was an exceptional person, after all. That’s the point: autobiographies are for exceptional people. You’re exceptional, too. You have a special story that’s worth sharing. The only thing to learn is how to write a life story about yourself.