Be revealing. You don't have to be explicit, but it's important to reveal truths about yourself and your life in an autobiography. Don't let the book become a list of your accomplishments, with all the negative material carefully kept under the rug. Present yourself as a whole person, sharing talents and flaws alike, and your readers will be able to identify with you and hopefully root for you as they make their way through your story.
Ruth O’Neil has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years, publishing hundreds of articles in dozens of publications. Her first novel Come Eat at My Table came out earlier this year. Her second is on its way. When she’s not writing, Ruth spends her time quilting, reading, scrapbooking, camping and hiking with her family. Visit her blog at http://www.ruths-real-life.blogspot.com or website at http://ruthoneil.weebly.com.
Capture the spirit of the times. How was your story shaped by the moment in history in which it took place? What wars influenced your politics? What cultural events inspired you? Be sure to include a few important dates so readers can understand the sequencing of the events you are describing. Discussing what happened in the world at large during your lifetime is a good way to make your story more relevant and interesting to those reading it.
Organize what you've written according to cause and effect and action and reaction. Ordering events according to cause and effect is a natural process. Your car broke down, so you called a tow truck. That's cause and effect. You received a promotion, so you bought a house. Action/reaction happens paragraph by paragraph. He said "No," so you said "Why?" That's action/reaction. She set a wet glass on the table, so you placed a coaster under it, and remembered how your mother used to crochet pretty little coasters and starch them. That's action/reaction.
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.
If you are just writing for your family, that story might be different than if you were writing your story to be read by the general public. Think about whether or not you want to change people’s names. If your life was a harsh one you may not want to include the real names of the people involved. You may also want to consider whether your life story could be written as fiction. There’s an old adage that “real life is better than fiction.” Maybe your true story could be written in fiction form making it more saleable for mass market.
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.
Many people cannot resist the temptation to tell as much as they can, but a longer piece of writing doesn’t always equal a better piece of writing. For whatever reason you are writing the autobiography, think of the person who is going to read it. Imagine you were an admission officer or the judge in the scholarship committee, and you have to choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of autobiographies. At some point you will hate people who prefer to write long admission essays and autobiographies. There’s also a good way to check whether your writing is interesting or not. Give it to one of your most impatient friends, who prefers short articles to books and long stories, and ask for their opinion.
"Most people don’t think of spiders when they bite into a tomato, but I do. Growing up in southern Ohio, I spent many summer afternoons picking baskets of tomatoes that would be canned or frozen and preserved for cold winter’s dinners. I loved the results of my labors, but I’ll never forget the sight of the enormous, black and white, scary-looking spiders that lived in the plants and created zigzag designs on their webs. In fact, those spiders, with their artistic web creations, inspired my interest in bugs and shaped my career in science."
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.
Identify the main characters. Every good story has interesting characters, friends and foes who help move the plot along. Who are the characters in your life? It's a given that your parents will play a role, along with your spouse and other close family members. Think beyond your immediate family to others who have affected your life and should play a role in your autobiography.