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.
Conduct basic research. Depending on your story, you may feel you need to do in-depth research on a certain subject, like air force pilots in WWII or life in a refugee camp in Poland. However, resist doing too much research before you start your first draft. You may get overwhelmed by the amount of information you come across during your research and start to forget your personal take on the facts. Remember that your memoir should focus on your memory of the event, rather than be purely factual or completely accurate.
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.
Build tension and suspense. Structure the narrative so that you have a series of stories leading up to the climax of the conflict. If your central conflict is trying to reach the goal of competing in the Olympics for skiing, lead up to it with stories of small successes and plenty of failures. You want your readers to ask, will she make it? Can he do it? What's going to happen next?
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.)
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.
It may help to identify the reading level of the ideal reader of your book. You can determine the reading level based on the grade level of your ideal reader. If you account for ESL readers, you should aim for a grade 6 or 7 reading level. If you are writing for a higher education audience, you may write at a grade 8 or 9 level. You can use the Hemingway app to determine the reading level of your draft, or other online reading level tools.
Culture includes the customs of your family, the holidays you preferred, celebrations and rituals you practiced, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. Include special glimpses into things like the most precious gift you got or popular foods served during special celebrations. These details will be lapped up by a hungry audience that wants to know more about a culture that is different from their own.
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.
Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens by chance or by means of luck. Illness, injury, love, lost moments of true greatness, and sheer stupidity all occur to test the limits of your soul. Without these small tests, whatever they may be, life would be like a smoothly paved, straight, flat road to nowhere. It would be safe and comfortable, but dull and utterly pointless.
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.
It might be tempting to start your story with "I was born in Dayton, Ohio...," but that is not really where your story begins. It's better to start with an experience. You may wish to start with something like why you were born where you were and how your family's experience led to your birth. If your narrative centers more around a pivotal moment in your life, give the reader a glimpse into that moment. Think about how your favorite movie or novel begins, and look for inspiration from other stories when thinking about how to start your own.
Writing an autobiography for a high school or a college English class can help you gain a deeper sense of personal identity. An autobiography allows you to tell your story in a way that reveals truths about your values, goals and dreams. Though there's no exact science to writing an autobiography, you should include information about your background, major events that shaped who you are and any core themes in your life. Include specific examples to help readers understand your life history.