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.
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.
Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens by chance or by means of luck. Illness, injury, love, lost moments of true greatness, and sheer stupidity all occur to test the limits of your soul. Without these small tests, whatever they may be, life would be like a smoothly paved, straight, flat road to nowhere. It would be safe and comfortable, but dull and utterly pointless.
It’s possible that writing your life story could be therapeutic, offering closure on some not so bright spots of your personal history along with emotional and psychological healing. Maybe your life was just a circus act from the beginning and is funny. If writing your life story touches you while you are writing it, think about all the people you can touch when they read it.
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
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.
You are not the first person who wants to write about his or her life. Many famous writers, artists, politicians, and businessmen create autobiographies to share their wisdom and experience with a wide audience. Find the autobiography that belongs to the author whose personality inspires you and read it in order to get a basic understanding of autobiographical writing.
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.”
Was your aim to succeed as a businessperson? To be the best parent you could be? To amass wealth? To become a musician? To find love or security? Whatever your goal, think of it as the unifying thread that drives your life, shows the failures and complications you overcame, and demonstrates how you ultimately achieved some form of success as the person you are today.
This guest post is by Richard Campbell. Campbell is co-author of Writing Your Legacy – The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story, published worldwide in July 2015 by Writer’s Digest Books. Richard teaches Legacy Writing to adult learners in Ontario, Canada, as well as to guests on board transatlantic crossings with a major cruise line. He is passionate about life story writing and has guested on several Top 50 U.S. radio stations. He would love to hear from you and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
“I was born in 19XX year, I entered school N…” Would you read that if you had a choice? Most likely not, especially if you already have read a dozen biographies which star with the same phrase. Yes, an autobiography is a formal piece of writing. But here, it rather means that you are not allowed to use slang and colloquial language, instead of following a specific pattern of writing.
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.)
Organize what you've written according to cause and effect and action and reaction. Ordering events according to cause and effect is a natural process. Your car broke down, so you called a tow truck. That's cause and effect. You received a promotion, so you bought a house. Action/reaction happens paragraph by paragraph. He said "No," so you said "Why?" That's action/reaction. She set a wet glass on the table, so you placed a coaster under it, and remembered how your mother used to crochet pretty little coasters and starch them. That's action/reaction.
You may not have had the most interesting childhood in the world, but everyone has had a few memorable experiences. Highlight the best parts when you can. If you live in a big city, for instance, you should realize that many people who grew up in the country have never ridden a subway, walked to school, ridden in a taxi, or walked to a store a few blocks away.
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?
You can find examples of how to write an autobiography in the stories of sports figures, great religious leaders, government officials, doctors, railroad workers, singers and actors, along with ordinary people who found meaning in their lives. Choose a category or person that inspires you, and read several examples of how great life stories are shared with the public.
If you think about it, most of us are already sharing our personal stories nowadays. What do you think social media is? We pour out pages and pages with our opinions. We publish photos as testimonials of our daily life. All that can belong to the genre of “creative nonfiction.” Turning a life story into a novel, however, is something else. It has to involve elegance, creativity, and some warmth and humor.
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.