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[3] by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.
"I was 12 years old when my mother passed away. By the time I was 15, I had become an expert in dodging bill collectors, recycling hand-me-down jeans, and stretching a single meal’s worth of ground beef into two family dinners. Although I was a child when I lost my mother, I was never able to mourn or to let myself become too absorbed in thoughts of personal loss. The fortitude I developed at a young age was the driving force that would see me through many other challenges."
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.
I honestly think, as put by George Burns, it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate. It is not a failure if you enjoyed the process. Even if you fall down, don’t worry. Have a fresh view. The world looks different from the ground. You can take from every experience what it has to offer you. Do better the second time. You never know when you success is at threshold. It’s very difficult to come up with new, creative, and novel ideas unless you are passionate about your work. Leave your reputation and invest in character. Cheers to a new year; another chance for us to get it right with a new resolution.
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.
Once you have your initial list, elaborate on each key event in your outline. If you're using the autobiograa, fill in the blanks, and then write anything you remember about that point, a little or a lot, whatever springs to mind. Later, you might choose a single event that best illustrates each point in the outline and describe the event, using your theme statement to guide your description.
Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. The memoir is based on a man’s life that reads like a movie. He escaped from communist Hungary in the 60’s only to be held as a spy in a neighboring country. He got his Fiance out first and she married someone else while he was being held as a spy. His life started with a bomb landing less than ten feet from the stroller he was in – and the bomb didn’t explode.
What's your central conflict? What's the biggest obstacle life presented that took years to overcome or come to terms with? Maybe it's an illness you were diagnosed with at an early age, a relationship wrought with turmoil, a series of career setbacks, a goal you worked for decades to achieve, or any other number of things. Look to your favorite books and movies for more examples of conflicts.
Limit it to 15 minutes, no more – at least at first. Fifteen minutes, three times a week, always at the same time and always in the same place. Stay there for all 15 minutes even if you can’t think of anything to write.  This will set up a rhythm, in the same way we get hungry at mealtimes whether or not we’re really hungry. This isn’t just about finding time to write your life story.
"I was 12 years old when my mother passed away. By the time I was 15, I had become an expert in dodging bill collectors, recycling hand-me-down jeans, and stretching a single meal’s worth of ground beef into two family dinners. Although I was a child when I lost my mother, I was never able to mourn or to let myself become too absorbed in thoughts of personal loss. The fortitude I developed at a young age was the driving force that would see me through many other challenges."
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.[14]
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.)
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.
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.
Autobiographies are often confused with memoirs. An autobiography is the inspiring story of a person’s entire life and the societal setting thereof, while memoirs have a narrower focus on the narration of a particular span of time within the subject’s lifetime. It mostly deals with individual’s memories, feelings and emotions. Memoirs are generally much shorter in length because they tend to concentrate on a particular theme rather than the entire life of the person. If you’re interested in writing a memoir, this is a great course to check out.
Outline the inciting incident and the ending incident. Often, writers have a difficult time to determining how to start a story. A memoir can be even more challenging as you might feel you have so many details and scenes you could start with or that feel important. One way to start is to identify the inciting incident in your story and the ending incident. You will need to dramatize your inciting incident and your ending incident in your book.[5]
I honestly think, as put by George Burns, it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate. It is not a failure if you enjoyed the process. Even if you fall down, don’t worry. Have a fresh view. The world looks different from the ground. You can take from every experience what it has to offer you. Do better the second time. You never know when you success is at threshold. It’s very difficult to come up with new, creative, and novel ideas unless you are passionate about your work. Leave your reputation and invest in character. Cheers to a new year; another chance for us to get it right with a new resolution.
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.[7]
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.
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