Conclude the autobiography with an experience gained, a lesson learned and a resolution you decided to take after that. Explain to the reader how that resolution set the tone for whatever you achieved in your life from that point forward. This classic format uses the “hero” theme that is endearing to most people. Everyone loves an underdog who was given lemons and ended up making lemonade!
Do you remember any other challenges you had to overcome that relate to each main point in the story? Did you move? Were you ill? Did anyone close to you die? Did any of these people or events affect the choices you made during that stage of your life? Do you remember any amusing or embarrassing incidents related to this success or failure? What high points and low points do you recall? Was a specific holiday or celebration memorable? A specific meal or car ride?
Writing about your life is important because it gives you a chance to reflect. Journaling is one of the main practices that therapists recommend for promoting mental health. It helps people manage anxiety, cope with stress, and deal with depression. When you maintain a journal and you go through your previous entries, you witness your memories without distorting the reality. You see your progress. You remind yourself of the important things you forgot.
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.
Show, don't tell. Engage your reader by showing them a specific process or scene, rather than narrate directly to them. For example, write a scene that shows the reader how you discovered your mother’s letters from her family in Poland after her death. This will give the reader key information to help move the story forward, without telling them in a long, uneventful passage.
Why did the author choose to highlight certain events in their life in the memoir? Consider why the memoirist chose a certain section of their childhood or a specific life event as the focus of the book. For example, Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking focuses on the recent deaths of her husband and her daughter, while Nabokov’s Speak, Memory focuses on his childhood in Russia. One event is in the recent past while one event is in the very distant past. Yet both events have a very strong, and possibly traumatic, effect on the writers.
Stick to informal language, unless it’s absolutely necessary to use formal terms. Instead of “utilize” you can just put “use”. Focus on simple language, with one or two syllable words. The only time you should be using higher level language is if you are using scientific terms or describing a technical process. Even then, you should be writing for the average reader.
You may not have had the most interesting childhood in the world, but everyone has had a few memorable experiences. Highlight the best parts when you can. If you live in a big city, for instance, you should realize that many people who grew up in the country have never ridden a subway, walked to school, ridden in a taxi, or walked to a store a few blocks away.
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.)
If you think about it, most of us are already sharing our personal stories nowadays. What do you think social media is? We pour out pages and pages with our opinions. We publish photos as testimonials of our daily life. All that can belong to the genre of “creative nonfiction.” Turning a life story into a novel, however, is something else. It has to involve elegance, creativity, and some warmth and humor.
You can find examples of how to write an autobiography in the stories of sports figures, great religious leaders, government officials, doctors, railroad workers, singers and actors, along with ordinary people who found meaning in their lives. Choose a category or person that inspires you, and read several examples of how great life stories are shared with the public.
Were you satisfied with the ending of the memoir? Why or why not? Unlike an autobiography, a memoir does not need to have a linear beginning, middle, and end. Most memoirs end without any firm conclusions or end of life moments. Instead, memoirs may end with thoughts on a running theme throughout the book, or with reflections on the pivotal event or moment in the writer’s life.