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.”
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.
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.
"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."
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.
Develop a central theme, main idea or thesis that clearly explains the purpose behind your autobiography. For example, your theme might be about how you overcame obstacles to become a stronger person, or it might explain why a particular passion -- such as mountain climbing or rescuing animals -- is so important to you. Back your theme with details and background information about your life experiences. For example, you might explain that your dad is in the military, so you've had to learn how to adapt quickly to new schools and unfamiliar environments. Or, you might discuss what it was like growing up in a poor, single-parent home, but how your family was always willing to take in injured or stray pets.