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."
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.
The requirements: These are what must be accomplished to achieve the goal. Think of it as a checklist of one or more events. As the requirements are met in the course of the novel, the reader will feel the narrator is getting closer to attaining the goal. Requirements create a sense of anticipation in the reader’s mind, as he looks forward to the narrator’s success.
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.
The consequence(s): Ask yourself, What disaster will happen if the goal is not achieved? What is my protagonist afraid will happen if she doesn’t achieve the goal or solve the problem? The consequence is the negative situation or event that will result if the goal is not achieved. The combination of goal and consequence creates the main dramatic tension in your plot. It’s what makes the plot meaningful.
Build tension and suspense. Structure the narrative so that you have a series of stories leading up to the climax of the conflict. If your central conflict is trying to reach the goal of competing in the Olympics for skiing, lead up to it with stories of small successes and plenty of failures. You want your readers to ask, will she make it? Can he do it? What's going to happen next?
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.)
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.
Were you satisfied with the ending of the memoir? Why or why not? Unlike an autobiography, a memoir does not need to have a linear beginning, middle, and end. Most memoirs end without any firm conclusions or end of life moments. Instead, memoirs may end with thoughts on a running theme throughout the book, or with reflections on the pivotal event or moment in the writer’s life.
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?
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.
You should check your autobiographical essay for mistakes in spelling, grammar, verb tense, style, punctuation, word forms, etc. No matter how emotional or exciting your writing is, your readers will stop reading as soon as they notice the first grammatical mistake. An illiterate author cannot win the trust of the audience, so you should take this step very seriously.
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.
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.