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.
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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.
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.
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.
Show, don't tell. Engage your reader by showing them a specific process or scene, rather than narrate directly to them. For example, write a scene that shows the reader how you discovered your mother’s letters from her family in Poland after her death. This will give the reader key information to help move the story forward, without telling them in a long, uneventful passage.
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 by organizing and filling out your written memories and anecdotes so that they flow together logically.
Culture includes the customs of your family, the holidays you preferred, celebrations and rituals you practiced, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. Include special glimpses into things like the most precious gift you got or popular foods served during special celebrations. These details will be lapped up by a hungry audience that wants to know more about a culture that is different from their own.
Train yourself to use concrete details rather than abstract concepts. Take another leisurely look at what you've written. Highlight abstract phrases such as "I was afraid," or "we had a pleasant time." Replace these abstract words or phrases with something concrete, such as "my hands shook and my mouth felt stuffed with cotton" or "We drank Chardonnay on the Chatterley's sailboat, and as the sun set Rachel and I walked hand in hand along the boardwalk." Was it "a hot day," or was "the asphalt so hot that your flip flops stuck to the tar"? You might go back to the professional autobiographies you're reading and type out a few passages from the books for practice. If you're watching for it, doing so will focus your attention on the concrete. Most ordinary readers won't think about whether or not you've used abstract or concrete terms. They will know whether the writing is boring or interesting. Writing an autobiography with concrete specificity will only improve it.
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.”
Determine the key actions and obstacles in your story. Once you have a sense of what desire or want you want to explore in your memoir, you can identify the actions and obstacles your narrator must overcome to achieve the desire line. Obstacles or challenges will give the story stakes and motivate your reader to keep turning the pages of your memoir. You are the driver of the action in your story and a story isn’t very exciting if it doesn’t have any driving action.
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!
Write out your life timeline. Start writing your autobiography by conducting research on your own life. Creating a timeline of your life is a good way to make sure you include all the most important dates and events, and it gives you a structure to build upon. You can consider this the "brainstorming" phase, so don't hesitate to write down everything you can remember, even if you don't think the memory will make it into the final version of the book.