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.
Pull out the best stories. The story of your entire life would start to get pretty long-winded, so you'll have to make some decisions about what anecdotes you're going to include. Begin drafting your manuscript by writing out the main stories that will be woven together to create a picture of your life. There are a few main topics that most autobiographies cover since readers find them fascinating.
Use chapter divisions to give the book structure. Chapters are useful because they allow you to move on from discussing certain life periods or events. There's a reason we have the expression that we've "closed a chapter" or "opened a new chapter" in life, and it's even more applicable when discussing an autobiography. Chapter breaks allow you to skip forward 10 years, go back in time, or start describing a new theme without jarring the reader too much.
Identify your narrator’s desire line. In your memoir, your narrator is you. You will use the first person, “I”, to lead the reader through your story. But it’s important to focus your memoir on specific need or desire. Your want will drive the food forward and make your story worth reading. Think about your desire line, or what motivates your narrator to tell her story. Your narrator will then struggle to achieve her desire line through telling her story and reaching a realization about a pivotal moment in her story.
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?
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.)
Come up with a title. It should match the tone and style of your book, in addition to being attention-grabbing and intriguing. Keep the title short and memorable, rather than wordy and difficult to grasp. You could title it with your name and the words "My Autobiography" or choose something less direct. Here are some famous autobiography titles that perfectly capture the stories inside:
According to the fascinating field of “narrative psychology,” the stories we tell about ourselves are the key to our well-being. If you’ve interpreted the events of your life to mean that you’re unlucky or unwise, it’s hard to look optimistically at the future. Conversely, if you acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes and faced difficulties but seek (or have already glimpsed) redemption, you’ll feel a much greater sense of agency over your life.
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.
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.
Determine the key actions and obstacles in your story. Once you have a sense of what desire or want you want to explore in your memoir, you can identify the actions and obstacles your narrator must overcome to achieve the desire line. Obstacles or challenges will give the story stakes and motivate your reader to keep turning the pages of your memoir. You are the driver of the action in your story and a story isn’t very exciting if it doesn’t have any driving action.
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?
While you might not remember every detail about a certain event, I guarantee someone who was there does remember. Asking family and friends for ideas or details of a certain situation can give you a completely different perspective of the event or time in your life. That perspective might prove to be invaluable in your writing. Be prepared; once you get a group of family and friends together to reminisce, you will be shocked at how quickly the ideas come and how one idea can spark another and another and another.
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.