These are great tips! Especially about writing what comes to you, not the story you originally set out to write. Sometimes we’re smarter than we even know and something important is trying to come out! I also recommend checking out StoryShelter – it has lots of question prompts to get you writing about your life. See what questions get your attention and maybe do a free write around them to get the juices flowing!
Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let’s say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, “I was just a kid but...” or “I tried my best but...” Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don’t have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. “Don’t think and write,” says Temes. “Just write.”
Identify the main characters. Every good story has interesting characters, friends and foes who help move the plot along. Who are the characters in your life? It's a given that your parents will play a role, along with your spouse and other close family members. Think beyond your immediate family to others who have affected your life and should play a role in your autobiography.
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.
If the purpose of your autobiography is to pass on your story to your heirs, consider including memorabilia (e.g. pictures, heirlooms, medals, mementos, letters, etc.) and putting your story in a scrapbook format. Of course, you may not be able to copy the memorabilia that accompanies your autobiography, so you still have to think about what you intend to do with your original work and other items, such as medals or bulky heirlooms.
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.
You may wonder how to start an autobiography introduction. The answer is simple: the same way you start other essays’ introductions. The main purpose of the introductory paragraph is to grab the reader’s attention and present the idea and theme of your writing. Don’t make the first paragraph too long: between one and three sentences are enough to compose a regular introduction. Try to provide readers with a general portrait of yourself, so they will know more about the main “hero.” Mention your age, significant personal qualities, and principles of worldview. You can also add some details about your appearance in order to make your story more vivid.
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.
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.
The idea is not to delude yourself that bad things are actually good. It is, instead, to find meaning in the progression from one event to the next. It is to recognize that everything constantly changes. In your life, you will move from triumph to heartbreak to boredom and back again, sometimes in the space of a single day. What are you to make of so many emotions, so many events?
For example, let's say you wrote, "From the age of ten, I knew I would become a concert pianist." What specific event triggered this determination? Can you describe that one event in a paragraph or two, using all the senses available to you—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell? Using all five senses will help readers imagine the moment as if they were present with you. This vicarious act of reliving events arouses more emotion in readers than simple summary. and if you can master it, you are well on your way to writing an autobiography! Sensory description: The narrow plank felt warm and smooth beneath my bare feet. I ran its length in three strides, arms extended out from my sides for balance. At the end I took a weightless leap into eighteen inches of space. I caught a barely-there flash of metal just before I landed hard, all my weight on my front foot. Then pain like a red-hot poker jammed through my arch, and the gleaming tip of a three-inch nail as it emerged through the top of my foot. Summary: That day I jumped on a board with a nail in it and it went through my foot.
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.
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.