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.”
2. Share your stories with your family. A few weeks ago, I told my 7-year-old son about a story I’m writing for kids. I mentioned that I’d been working on this story for months. “How come you never told me before?” he wanted to know. He was genuinely shocked—maybe even a little hurt—that I’d kept the plot points to myself. “I guess I didn’t think you’d be interested,” I told him truthfully. He is obsessed with soccer and ice hockey, and mine is a story of girls, time travel, and shyness. But it bothered him that I had a story I’d chosen not to mention. From now on, I’ll err on the side of sharing the things I dream up even if they have nothing to do with soccer balls and hockey pucks.
Either way, this jump is disturbing, but the description likely caused you to cringe more than the summary. And doesn't some part of you want to know what happened next? Who came to help? How quickly they reached a doctor? If all had turned out well in the jump, you would not have the same compulsion to read on. If you can't think of any details, write a line of summary and return to fill in the details as you remember them. If you remain relaxed about it, you will remember. If you don't, you don't. Writing an autobiography isn't easy, but it should be enjoyable.
These memories are also important because they point backwards to what was, and forwards to what was about to happen, with a sense that there was now a new way of seeing these stretches of time. In each memory, moreover, there is likely to be a huge gift – each will reflect a theme, possibly a major theme, which will play out in the rest of the writers’ life.
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.
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:
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.
It might be tempting to start your story with "I was born in Dayton, Ohio...," but that is not really where your story begins. It's better to start with an experience. You may wish to start with something like why you were born where you were and how your family's experience led to your birth. If your narrative centers more around a pivotal moment in your life, give the reader a glimpse into that moment. Think about how your favorite movie or novel begins, and look for inspiration from other stories when thinking about how to start your own.
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.
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!
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.
Incorporate dialogue into your autobiography to make it more personal, recommends history professor Robert Gerlich at Loyola University in New Orleans. Consider including humor when it's appropriate. For example, if you're writing about how you got lost at Disneyland when you were 10 years old and how the experience helped you learn to face obstacles, problem solve and overcome your fears, you might write, "The attendant at Splash Mountain said, 'Are you OK? Did you get separated from your family?' I quickly replied with as much bravado as I could muster, 'Nah, I'm fine. My eyes are just wet from the ride.' I didn't want her to know I was crying."