11 Tips for Writing an Autobiographical Story
11 Tips for Writing an Autobiographical Story
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 7 “Autobiographical"
"It is long ere we discover how rich we are. Our history, we are sure, is quite tame: we have nothing to write, nothing to infer. But our wiser years still run back to the despised recollections of childhood, and always we are fishing up some wonderful article out of that pond; until, by and by, we begin to suspect that the biography of the one foolish person we know is, in reality, nothing less than the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the Universal History."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
While most of my writing experience is in the fiction genre, I have had people ask me for advice on autobiographical stories. So, I’ve done my research, read autobiographies, spoken to autobiographical authors, worked on small autobiographical projects for myself, and worked on cross-connecting the genre with its fictional counterparts. This does not make me an expert, of course, but it does give me a place of perspective from which to give advice based on what I’ve learned so far. The primary thing I’ve learned is that any story, fictional, historical, or autobiographical, deserves the same quality of style and pacing. So, let’s look at some ways to do that.
Tip 1: Decide why you are choosing to share your life story.
As with any story, you need to know why you are writing an autobiography. I’ve never read or heard of a profession autobiography that did not have some type of purpose behind it. In his work, “On Writing,” Stephen King dedicates half his book to a personal story about the things that made him want to write, the mistakes he made in writing, and his biggest influences. His purpose was to make his autobiography support and explain his advice. In “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard uses stories from her early years to deal with the senseless beauty and cruelty of the universe.
So, what is your motivation for writing this story about yourself? It could be that you're trying to create a catharsis—to come to emotional terms with a painful event. Maybe you are writing for others, to give hope or insight to those who are going through something like what you have. You might even be famous and are trying to entertain or make money. Each of these is a valid reason for writing down your life story. But you must establish your purpose so that you can do so as effectively as possible. Of course, this isn’t a prerequisite for writing the first draft; you may have a subconscious purpose that you’ll figure out along the way.
Tip 2: Establish whether your autobiography is for you or for others.
Some people, myself included, write autobiographical works that we never share with anyone. These serve as an emotional release of painful experiences in our child and adult lives. If you are writing just for you, write whatever you want. You don't need a guide for style, so just allow yourself to bleed on the page. If you are writing for others, however, you need to craft the account in such a way that it will be effective. The story, while still about you and for you, can no longer exclusively serve you. You have certain obligations to your reader, such as honesty and a willingness to tell the story with the level of quality that it deserves. You take on this responsibility, if for no other reason, because your story will be ineffective and poorly received without it.
Tip 3: Tell your story with the best honesty you can manage.
Readers can tell on a subconscious level when a story is dishonest, either through faulty information or omission of important information. Even someone who isn’t skilled at literary analysis can pick this up on a subconscious level. The protagonist will seem too brave, too perfect, or like a perpetual victim. And no matter what your motivation for writing, you cannot afford to lose your reader's trust. If you want your story to be effective, then tell the truth.
I encourage you to look for the places inside your own mind where you might be telling yourself an untrue version of things due to false memories. For example, children coming from abusive home often tell that they instigated a lot of the abuse and rightly deserved it. This isn’t a purposeful lie, but a false memory that we told ourselves at the time to help us survive. Spend time and meditate on all you see and remember to tell as factual a story as you can manage.
Note that this does not mean that you must be completely factual with details such as people's names—which could hurt you, them, or your relationships. In these cases, you should just tell your readers that you are purposefully changing the names of those involved for the sake of their privacy. Just be honest as to what truly happened, your true motivations, and your true feelings, whenever an event occurred. And don't omit details simply because they make you or someone you care about look bad in the context of the story. These moments of painful honesty are what will gain your readers’ trust.
Tip 4: Work toward an attitude of ambivalence.
In her first autobiography, Annie Dillard struggles to merge her faith with the pointless cruelty around her. What gives her work power was that she does not resolve this by making a cutesy excuse or oversimplifying the complex nature of the universe. She looks at all she holds dear, including the divine, and addresses them with anger, disgust, wonder, and whatever other honest mix of emotions that she feels. When your story features your opinions about people, situations, and anything else, always strive for ambivalence.
Though it may not seem it from the perspective of your memories, there are no completely terrible or completely wonderful situations, people, places, or events. No matter how bad a situation, you can always learn from it or grow. Bad people may be awful in every way, but they also have lives that are realistically complex. And the grass is always greener on the other side. Don’t be a Pollyanna or an Eeyore. Address and deal with the pain, but don't let it become a dark cloud that drives your audience away by the powers of unrealistic despair.
Tip 5: Practice wisdom and restraint in your autobiographical projects.
Of the autobiographical projects I’ve worked on, there are very few that I ever plan to show anyone. But the irony is that every single one of them was one that I thought I was writing for others to read. An example is one I wrote about surviving abusive treatment from a parent. I wrote it fully intending to show it to the world until I realized that my purpose was insincere. I wasn’t trying to help people but to channel my pain into a constructive force and gain catharsis, perhaps also subconsciously craving the pity and support of others. I don’t believe that there is anything malicious or bad in those intentions, but they would not have been effective in their purpose. Because I did not publish that autobiographical project, I can hold on to the subject and perhaps one day discuss it in a way that will help people instead of just me.
My recommendation is simply to hold on to all autobiographical projects for at least a month before you show them to others. When we create such a project while fueled by those raw emotions, we often become blinded to their quality. We become defensive or perceive them as better than what they are because we are stuck inside of them. By waiting, you give yourself time to cool down and think about whether the project is something you want others to see. If they are, then they’ll continue to be so when the month is finished. Plus, you’ll then have time and emotional distance to edit them and make them better. If not, then you have helped yourself towards catharsis while creating a record that you may be able to someday reference when you create the autobiography you want to share.
Tip 6: Make extra efforts to show, not tell.
The human mind automatically interprets everything it sees, especially through memories. For whatever reason, we seek out patterns and reasons for the things that happen in our lives instead of just taking every individual occurrence as autonomous in nature. This can be a powerful tool for finding commonalities in those events, learning how much influence we had over them, and for sometimes even effecting change. We can even put unrelated events together in a poetic way that will improve the quality of our autobiographical story. But it comes at a price when it comes to honest storytelling.
Think of when people tell you something that happened to them, often giving you their side of things without any objective facts. You can tell that they genuinely believe in the story that they are telling, but that they are so lost in their own emotions that it would be unwise to take their perspective as factual. You will be tempted to do the same in writing, which is a problem when one of the goals of writing is to let the audience come to their own conclusions.
If mnemonic devices are your thing, remember to Relive, Recount, Record, and Reflect. Relive—put yourself back into the memory. Recount—give as best an objective account of the things that happened. Record—write down accounts from other people or from reliable evidence. Reflect—tell how you interpreted and were emotionally affected by your perspective of the situation. Remember to always be honest in the difference between your subjective feelings, your possible false memories, and objectively factual events.
Tip 7: Remember your antagonistic force and its role within an autobiographical story.
Even in real-life stories, there will be a primary antagonist that plays the exact same role and appears in the exact same plot-points as a villain in fiction. In real life, this antagonistic force will often be a situation, an event, society, or (most often) something within yourself. Illustrate and deal with this antagonistic force the same as you would a villain—with complexity, ambivalence, and empathy. Unlike characters in a novel, however, note that this antagonist will often not be something you can vanquish or permanently defeat. Unfortunately, reality does not always work that way. Your antagonist may be something end up being an opponent against which you forever battle or learn to accept. Your victory may be a gain in perspective for how to do that.
Tip 8: Put special emphasis on your narrative voice.
Most autobiographies center around one person, you. They may feature a few other characters, your family, friends, and acquaintances. But these will generally not be in the story long enough to have their own personal arcs. As such, you must secure your attention by yourself to avoid your story sounding dull and lifeless. The voice with which you communicate to your audience should be so engaging that their entire interest and attachment to the story hinges on you. This is neither as difficult nor as easy as it may sound.
For your narrative voice to be interesting, it merely needs to be honest and truly your own—through a usage of words, sentences, explanations, and dialogue that you would use in a real-life conversation with an intelligent listener. People will either like your voice or they won’t, depending on their personal preference, so there’s no need to try to find a voice everybody will like. However, to write like you would speak is difficult in and of itself. Such a dialogue must be styled and crafted with much effort, countless revisions, and peer review to make sure you are accomplishing what you set out for.
Tip 9: Use a Plot Structure.
A common problem with autobiographical stories is that they seem like ceaseless rambling or a vomiting of jumbled information. This is because there is no structure to the presented information, no pace which we can use to maintain interest and attention. This results in the story not only being difficult to read but the message behind it being lost in the undirected confusion. Every plot-point in a story, regardless of type, serves a specific purpose in creating a dynamic storytelling experience. They build tension, create highs and lows, establish borders of beginning and end. Think of it as riding a water-slide. Whether you are going on the biggest slide or the smallest, you still need the climb, the descent, the curves, the drops, to get you to the end without having to push yourself down.
There are two ways that I advise structuring this: either in a chronological or topical twelve-point plot outline. The chronological plot outline is no different from that which you use to write a novel. The topical outline is an approach by which you assemble vignettes in terms of topic or purpose, not by the order in which events happened. If your antagonistic force was your fear, for example, you might create the midpoint by discussing the various times in your life when it got the best of you. You wouldn’t necessarily talk about the middle of your life or even the middle of your struggle, just the event that best embolizes the midpoint of your experience in the topic you are discussing.
Tip 10: Bullet-point your memories in a notebook.
Just like with writing an essay, sometimes the best way to sort all our memories is to fragment them and see how they can be used. Once you do that, you can cut them into pieces and shuffle them around to play with various outline ideas. This way, you do not feel like you must write down an event as soon as it pops into your head. You can strategize, use what you need, throw away what you don’t, and come up with possibilities for how to organize your novel before you write yourself into a corner.
Tip 11: Look at the challenges you face in terms of universality.
Don't make efforts to illustrate yourself as so unique in your struggles and thoughts that you isolate yourself from your reader. If you want reader interest and to help others, you must gain their empathy—a feeling of connection that the reader has for you. You do not want sympathy, their feeling bad for you but becoming more emotionally distant. Empathy is best gained through a feeling of shared experience, even if that experience is somewhat varied. For example, maybe your parent died in a war and a part of you thinks that this is harder than any other sort of loss. Resist that temptation. Focus on the shared human experience of loss, no matter what the cause. As a result, your story will touch more people. Those readers will be more inclined to have empathetic respect for you than to pity you.
A special thank-you goes out to poet and writer Mel Finefrock, Nobody for her input on the first version of this tutorial. First, this tutorial would not exist without her contacting me about it over a year ago and offering her help and insight. Second, the previous version of this tutorial marked a significant point of improvement in my work. She reviewed the drafts and worked with me until it was much better than I could have made it alone. I’ve been able to use her advice and standards to improve my other tutorials ever since. Send her llamas and watch her page if you enjoy her content.
Weekly Recommended Listening: "The Most Personal Song Ever Written By Me" by Stufy. (I don't usually recommend songs, but this one is certainly autobiographical in nature. It tells a story that is raw, powerful, and emotional. Yet you can detect the artistry, thought, and time that went into it. You feel empathy, not pity.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.7
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of autobiography. Write down what your purpose is for writing your autobiography.
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ANN - Chapter 6 - My Meeting with the Immortal
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