Train yourself to use concrete details rather than abstract concepts. Take another leisurely look at what you've written. Highlight abstract phrases such as "I was afraid," or "we had a pleasant time." Replace these abstract words or phrases with something concrete, such as "my hands shook and my mouth felt stuffed with cotton" or "We drank Chardonnay on the Chatterley's sailboat, and as the sun set Rachel and I walked hand in hand along the boardwalk." Was it "a hot day," or was "the asphalt so hot that your flip flops stuck to the tar"? You might go back to the professional autobiographies you're reading and type out a few passages from the books for practice. If you're watching for it, doing so will focus your attention on the concrete. Most ordinary readers won't think about whether or not you've used abstract or concrete terms. They will know whether the writing is boring or interesting. Writing an autobiography with concrete specificity will only improve it.
Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let’s say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, “I was just a kid but...” or “I tried my best but...” Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don’t have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. “Don’t think and write,” says Temes. “Just write.”
It was only when Sophie’s husband accused her of giving birth to another man’s baby that she went for paternity tests and discovered that her husband was right (sort of). The baby, then aged 10, wasn’t his, but she wasn’t Sophie’s either. She belonged to another set of parents, who had been raising Sophie’s biological daughter in a town several miles away.
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.
It’s possible that writing your life story could be therapeutic, offering closure on some not so bright spots of your personal history along with emotional and psychological healing. Maybe your life was just a circus act from the beginning and is funny. If writing your life story touches you while you are writing it, think about all the people you can touch when they read it.
Create a plot outline. Though you are writing a memoir, following the principles of fiction, such as a plot outline, can help give your book form and shape. It can also make it easier for you to organize your research materials in a way that is engaging and interesting for your reader. A story’s plot is what happens in the story and the order it happens in. For there to be a story, something has to move or change. Something or someone goes from point A to point B due to a physical event, a decision, a change in a relationship, or a change in a character or person. Your plot outline should include:
Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it’s a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.
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Write out your life timeline. Start writing your autobiography by conducting research on your own life. Creating a timeline of your life is a good way to make sure you include all the most important dates and events, and it gives you a structure to build upon. You can consider this the "brainstorming" phase, so don't hesitate to write down everything you can remember, even if you don't think the memory will make it into the final version of the book.