Fundamentals of Autobiography Writing
Where the motivation to write about your life in autobiographical form comes from may vary according to the person undertaking the project, but its ability to record, preserve, reflect, and shed light on it can significantly enhance it.
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure a year in the life?” run the words of the opening song of the Tony award winning musical Rent. What, it may be asked, will you do with your forthcoming one or, perhaps more appropriately, what have you done with the previous ones?
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” wrote Greek philosopher Socrates, and the autobiography is one literary method of doing so.
Countless people have probed, explored, and wondered what the meaning of life is. But the more valuable question may be: What meaning can you give yours? While that ability may not be readily available, the exploration of it through the written word may facilitate this process. Then, again, as you record the numerous experiences and people who shaped you, taught you, and aided your growth and development as an infinite soul temporarily housed in finite physical form, you may conclude that there is not necessarily a single answer.
“Autobiography narrative teaches you how to express what you’ve experienced, what you feel, what you remember, what you understand, who you are, what you believe, and why, in a way that someone else would relish reading… ,” wrote Tristine Rainer in her book, “Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997, p. 8).
As the years and, eventually, the decades unfold, recalling exact incidents and people may become increasingly difficult, and gathering these facts may require significant time and effort before the autobiographer is ready to place his pen on the paper. Nevertheless, there are several tools and techniques that can facilitate this process.
1). Records: Records come in numerous forms-documents, reports, report cards, letters and emails, photographs, conversations with friends and relatives, yearbooks, articles, souvenirs, mementos. All may aid in the recall of life events.
2). Journals and Diaries: Journals, diaries, and any other means of preserving the events of your life can form the foundation of an autobiography and can include reflections, feelings, decisions, and redirections based upon what was experienced.
3). Schematics: Schematics, such as time lines and family trees, can not only aid memory, but place events, experiences, and milestones in chronological order. The process, however, may require significant thought and effort before an accurate schematic can be produced. Consider the family tree and timeline examples, subdivided into both years and high and low points, below.
4). Initial Writing: Like peeling away the layers of an onion, writing enables the autobiographer to progressively probe his memory. The more he does so, the more of it he recovers and uncovers. Doing so with the non-dominant hand offers a regressive approach-that is, it provides that slightly shaky, unpracticed feeling and can lead to the revelation of childhood memories.
5). Period Writing: Although hardly comprising a complete, life-spanning work, focusing on a specific period, such as the person’s teenage years, may limit the amount of material needed to be accessed or remembered at a single time. After it has been captured in varying degrees of accuracy and completeness, it may enable the author to temporarily “put it at rest” and move on to another period.
Like that of the personal journal, the autobiography’s purpose and audience are author-determined-that is, he may choose to write only for himself to preserve and examine his life, for his friends and relatives, for future generations, for electronic publication, either in whole or in part; or for the purposes of publishing a full-length book in traditional-print form. For whomever it is written, however, its ultimate value may be that of self-definition and not that by others.
Because an autobiography should, as much as possible, strive to be a factual and accurate account of a person’s life, and because that account invariably involves the multitude of people he has interacted with, whether they be family members, co-students, friends, or colleagues, its foundation can be considered “truth.” Yet, this may not be achievable in absolute terms due to many factors.
1). The author’s inability to remember and recollect events.
2). His capability of reproducing events, incidents, and interactions, and expressing them in literary form.
3). His perspective, angle, and interpretation of them.
4). The “truth” that those involved in the account may remember or may wish to remember, based upon their own perspectives, may differ.
5). The “truth” they may remember to protect themselves against what is claimed in the text may differ.
6). The past need to have repressed or buried certain negative or even traumatic events.
7). The time interval between memories, as separated by age.
Tantamount to writing an autobiography, of course, is accurate memory. Yet, the older the writer becomes, the further becomes his reach to the early incidents of his life. Time, distortions, cognitive decline, selective memory, and occlusions all factor into the recapture and expressive process. How he perceives events later in life are assuredly different from how he was able to do so earlier in life, especially since he may have been mentally, emotionally, neurologically, and physiologically less- or undeveloped at the time. Even current cognitive and emotional states will filter past occurrence capture.
“You are never yourself in autobiography, because it is not you,” notes Rainer (ibid, p. 100). “It is not even the experience you had, no matter how conscientiously recorded, because it is really words recounted on a page. The more magic you can make the words do, the closer they come to recreating the essence of an experience. But even then, it is only what you remember of the experience and that is in itself unreliable.”
Further complicating this remember-and-write process is the fact that the memory’s core becomes attached to thoughts, images, and details that may not have been present during the time of its occurrence, as the mind seeks to expand and embellish the original construct. Its modified shape and encompassment equally result from the person’s positon in time and lens through which he views it, thus explaining why those in court who testify about a crime they witnessed may not always be as reliable and accurate as their claims suggest.
Remembering is therefore not always the exact science many believe that it is, since the brain must reconnect with incidents that occurred sometimes decades earlier. Yet, until the author probes them for his autobiography, he may never have had the need to do so until now. Depending upon their types, ranging from happy to traumatic ones, they may be repressed and hidden.
Remembering, additionally, may entail the recall of merged memoires, which the mind has combined into single, time-unseparated ones. The author, for instance, may remember that he used to ride the bus to school when he was ten-years-old, but may find it impossible to remember which seat he sat in on each of the occasions, which books he carried, and what the weather was like on each. Recall, if you can, what type of homework you did on October 14 when you were 15 and what they served in the school cafeteria on February 5 when you were 17.
Recalling events entails the ability to run incidents, like film strips, in your mind and see and hear those with whom you interacted.
Reminiscing entails the ability to generate feelings, sensations, and emotions associated with the factual memories. Decades later, for instance, you may be able to generate joyous emotions when you hear the song that was played at your senior prom. You may wish to incorporate some of them in your own autobiography.
An author’s voice, irrespective of the genre he pens, can be considered his personality taking form on paper-that is, how he approaches a subject and how he uniquely describes it. It takes shape in innumerable ways, from sarcasm to irony to humor.
It may require a significant amount of time-and hence practice-before he can nurture and establish it. Ironically, it make require just as much time for him to “unlearn” the stuffy, stilted style he was forced to adopt to please his English professors and satisfy term paper writing guidelines. As an extension of him, it should flow naturally, not unlike that of his speech.
“The term ‘finding your voice,’ suggests (that) it has been lost,” points out Rainer (ibid, p. 124). “And I suppose for many educated people it has been. They have learned to write the King’s English, but since they aren’t the king, it’s a kind of ventriloquism.”
“Ventriloquism” here refers to educationalese or that which is standardly used by journalists, students, and textbook writers. But, unless your life was a textbook example-and few are-then there is no reason to express it as if it were.
Because your story entails not only what you experienced, but how you felt, filtered, and processed those experiences, sometimes through distortions that may have ironically defined you, your genuine voice will only provide an additionally enhancing element to its authenticity. You, after all, are the “I” in the work to whom everything happened and now you assume the “I” who recounts it from your own expressive perspective.
“Hearing your voice is like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time-aah, so that is who I am,” continues Rainer (ibid, p. 139). “Instead of trying to change yourself… your goal, once you’ve recognized your authentic voice, is to see how much more like yourself you can become.”
Journal or diary writing, the equivalent to singing in the shower to practice a person’s voice, can facilitate identifying its writing counterpart over time. Since both are usually solo acts, you can eliminate any concern for what others may think about either, using these venues for numerous “practice runs.”
Although a person’s writing voice will hinge upon his educational level, upbringing, home life, geographic location, ethnic background, and culture, using it further enables the reader, if you choose to share your work, to enter your world and experience you and your ways of life. It can, however, vary according to the time period covered and whether the writer chooses to look back at himself when he was younger or place himself in that period and capture what he feels and experiences at his earlier, undeveloped age.
“Most commonly, the voice in autobiographic narrative… is a combination of your younger self as protagonist in the past and your older self as narrator in the present,” Rainer also advises (ibid, p. 129). “Generally, it is the best choice because it creates dramatic tension. As protagonist/hero… you give us beat by beat your feelings and observations as they were at the time. As narrator… you are the self who has revived the experience and is now able to recall it as story. As narrator, you also indicate your emotions and reflections as you see things now. You are the present self who can weep for the unknowing cruelty of the person you were… “
Any written work, whether fictional or fact, is nothing more than a still-life painting without those who provide the action, dialogue, and feelings, and an almost uncountable number of others certainly served as the “players” of your life.
Of these, you, first and foremost, were the main one. As both the protagonist and the writer, you were the one everything happened to, prompting an examination of what you believe is most unique about you, or which effects you think you had on the lives of others, what roles you played, and how you grew as a result of it all. Integral to your singularity were your circumstances, your strengths and weaknesses, and what you learned from your experiences. This examination will prove mutually beneficial: it will enable both you and your readers to learn things about your life that only this focus can reveal.
As the protagonist, you invariably encountered and were thwarted by antagonists, or the forces in both human and circumstantial form that opposed your goals and efforts. During your upbringing, they could have included your parents, primary caregivers, foster care workers, and siblings. During adulthood, they could have been a spouse. And within your career, they could have encompassed competing colleagues and bosses. They did not, however, have to entail others. Instead, they could have included countless other aspects, such as handicaps, limiting beliefs, and socioeconomic, cultural, and geographical restrictions.
When you introduce others in your book, avoid exclusive use of their names or physical descriptions.
“The details you mention should suggest the person’s singularity and temperament, and the effects of these attributes on you,” Rainer advises (ibid, p. 163).
Character personality can be more effectively illustrated by means of mannerisms, gestures, unique, frequently used expressions, and habitual behaviors, but if physical features are used, you should limit yourself to only one or two of them.
The decision to write about certain people should hinge upon the instrumental role they played in your life.
Writing an autobiography requires the recalling and researching of the significant events of your life, and then dividing them into recountable pieces or sections, which can serve as its chapters. Although the method for doing so is author-determined, there are numerous possibilities.
1). Chronologically: This method entails beginning with your birth and recounting the significant events which followed it.
2). By decades: Some autobiographers choose to subdivide their lives, and therefore chapters or sections, into decades, such as “The 1970’s,” “The 1980’s,” “The 1990’s.”
3). Life stages: This approach entails the subdivisions of infancy, childhood, the teenage years, adulthood, retirement, and similar.
4). Significant people: An autobiography structured by people focuses on those significant ones who impacted the writer’s life, whether positively or negatively..
5). Milestones: Although milestones are individualistic and author-determined, they can include degrees, publications, career promotions, resident relocations, employment positions, accomplishments, marriage, and children, among others. This method may place less emphasis on sheer chronology.
Borg, Mary. “Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography.” Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 1998.
Case, Patricia Ann. “How to Write Your Autobiography: Preserving Your Family Heritage.” Santa Barbara, California: Woodbridge Press Publishing Company, 1989.
Rainer, Tristine. “Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography”. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997.