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.
Create an overarching plot. Now that you know what content you want to include in your autobiography, think about how you want to structure your book. Like any great book, your autobiography needs a great plot. Work with the material you have to craft an interesting story that builds toward a climax and ultimately resolves. Create a narrative arc by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.
Think honestly about your experiences, too. Don't just focus on the best parts of your memories; think about the details within those times. While Christmas morning may be a magical memory, you might also consider the scene around you. Include details like your mother making breakfast, your father spilling his coffee, someone upset over relatives coming into town, and other small details like that. Understanding the full experience of positives and negatives helps you paint a better picture for the reader and lead to a stronger and more interesting narrative. Learn to tie together all the interesting elements of your life story and craft them into an engaging essay.
The aim of such an essay is obvious: you need it to convince admissions officers to accept you into college. As a rule, there is a word limit specified in the instruction for applicants. Don’t confuse an autobiographical essay with your CV or resume! They have totally different structure and formatting. In addition, the essay is aimed at portraying you as a personality, not as a professional.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stick to informal language, unless it’s absolutely necessary to use formal terms. Instead of “utilize” you can just put “use”. Focus on simple language, with one or two syllable words. The only time you should be using higher level language is if you are using scientific terms or describing a technical process. Even then, you should be writing for the average reader.
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?
Your readers won’t be interested in reading the whole text of your autobiography if you don’t provide a good impression in the introduction. Convince your audience that your story is unique, original, and is worth their time. If you are going to write about an episode from your childhood, use a feeling of nostalgia to create a tight connection between readers and your own memories. Remember that all people are the same to some extent. We live through similar experiences every day, so you should use these similarities to make your writing attractive for the general public.
There is a good chance that if you haven’t had to write a bio already, that you may have to in the future. A bio is required of many job applicants, it is used on many networking sites, freelancers have to have one for potential clients and if you have a website or blog connected to your business, you should probably have one. Bios provide a concise summary of who a person is and what they do, while at the same time, they allow a bit of personality to come through. There are basically two main functions your bio should perform: 1) establish your credentials and qualifications; 2) create enough interest so the reader will want to know more.
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.