The consequence(s): Ask yourself, What disaster will happen if the goal is not achieved? What is my protagonist afraid will happen if she doesn’t achieve the goal or solve the problem? The consequence is the negative situation or event that will result if the goal is not achieved. The combination of goal and consequence creates the main dramatic tension in your plot. It’s what makes the plot meaningful.
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.
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.
Sometimes people come into your life and you know right away that they were meant to be there, to serve some sort of purpose, teach you a lesson, or to help you figure out who you are or who you want to become. You never know who these people may be (possibly your roommate, neighbor, coworker, longlost friend, lover, or even a complete stranger) but when you lock eyes with them, you know at that very moment that they will affect your life in some profound way.
Choose something small, but memorable, like a chocolate, a cup of coffee, or a cookie – something indulgent but relatively guilt free. This tells the Unconscious that it’s okay to learn how to write your life story. There’s nothing threatening going on. And soon enough, your Unconscious will let go of its defenses and allow the memories keep flowing.
This is an extremely emotional and intimate type of writing. You share a personal experience with your readers in a detailed manner. Your audience should have an opportunity to see the event or person that you’ve written about through your eyes and understand your feelings. Any personal essay has two main aspects: the description of a particular situation and how it has influenced your worldview and life. Generally, the personal essay is the shortest form of autobiographical writing, along with the essay for college.
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.
The inciting incident is the pivotal moment in your story, where you realized your desire line. It could be a seemingly small moment, such as a brief fight with your mother, that becomes a major moment or inciting incident in your story. For example, your brief fight with your mother could be the last time you speak to her before she passes away and leaves you letters about her life in Poland. Think of the ah ha moment in your story when you realized what you wanted in your life, or where you realized you were wrong about your assumptions about a specific moment or event.
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.
“Talking about the past can have a healing function, but what we find is that talk, literally, is cheap,” Dr Hunter says. “We speak words and they fly away before we’ve faced what it is they convey. This is not the case with the written word. Writers find themselves saying, ‘ I never really thought about it before’ or ‘ I never saw it this way until I started to write it’.
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.)
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
"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."
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!
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.
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.
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.
Take a step back to reflect. You're chronicling your life lessons, but what have you learned from them? Relay your intentions, desires, feelings of loss, feelings of joy, the wisdom you've gained, and other inner thoughts from time to time throughout the book. Taking a step back from the action of the story to reflect on what it all means is a good way to add depth to your autobiography.