Aspiring autobiographers often mail us asking, ‘how can I write my own story?’ Try these 7 life writing tips to start:
1. Decide whether you’ll write non-fiction or fictionalize
There are many ways to approach life writing. You could follow a non-fiction approach and set down dates, facts and memories as close to events as they occurred as possible.
Another option is to fictionalize and blur the line between fact and fiction. This approach to life writing may be useful if you want to:
- Protect your identity or those of others while writing about trauma or difficult subject matter
- Experiment with elements of fiction and a playful approach
Example of experimental life writing: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
The French theorist Roland Barthes begins his memoirs with a preface that reads:
It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.
Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes (1977).
Barthes proceeds to give the reader fragments written in the third person, alternating with captioned photographs from his youth. For example, in one fragment titled ‘Arrogance’ he writes:
He has no affection for proclamations of victory. Troubled by the humiliations of others, whenever a victory appears somewhere, he wants to go somewhere else.
Barthes, Roland Barthes, p. 46.
Describing himself in the third person, Barthes gives the reader insights into his views and values, as an ordinary autobiography might. Yet in their fragmentary, third-person presentation (without narrative), they become like brief, philosophical musings, rather than a traditional linear ‘story’ with character development. The memoir is told very much in the voice of a theorist and scholar of language.
2. Choose an approach to time
Time is an interesting element to consider when deciding how to write your life story.
For example, will your book cover birth to the present day? Or a few weeks or months spanning either side of a momentous life event?
First-person narrators in fiction give us examples of narrative approaches to time we can also adopt in writing about our lives.
For example, the title character of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield begins his story by describing the setting for his birth:
To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), p. 5 (1992 Wordsworth Editions).
After detailing the day and time of his birth, David goes into closer setting detail:
I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘thereby,’ as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.
Dickens, David Copperfield, p. 6.
This approach to time gives a linear sense of the way a life progresses, from childhood. It’s a common narrative approach in many bildungsromans (coming-of-age stories).
You can also, however, experiment with time in writing your life story.
You could start with a significant event that happened later in adulthood, for example, and circle back to past scenes that illuminate backstory and help the reader to understand what led up to later events.
As you plan how you’ll write time in your life story, ask, ‘What would provide the strongest dramatic effect?’
3. Do what you need to set aside any fear
Many writers feel daunted when embarking on a new project. This is often particularly acute when writing about more personal experiences where you don’t have the protective veil of fictional characters.
When the acclaimed biographer of Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee, was asked whether fear is a useful emotion for a biographer, she replied:
The fear has to be channeled somehow into the energy of the work. While you’re doing it, I think you have to feel that she is yours and you alone understand her. But in order to arrive at that feeling you have to deal with, and master, your apprehension.
Hermione Lee, interview in ‘Hermione Lee, The Art of Biography No. 4’ for The Paris Review, available here.
Lee goes on to describe how the biographer Richard Homes coped with this feeling. He said:
I get to my desk every morning and I hear these little voices saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing!’ and I raise my arm and I just sweep, I sweep them off the desk.’
Find your own way to silence any fear, be it changing key figures’ names or even fictionalizing your life entirely.
Stay focused and build confidence
Work with a writing coach on your memoir or novel for extra accountability and faster progress.LEARN MORE
4. Summarize significant events to cover
Any one person’s life is a massive archive or trove of significant experiences and memories. As Hermione Lee says, the immensity of this ‘source material’ can feel overwhelming.
As a preparatory step in deciding how to write your life story, summarize key events you want to include. Try to write just two lines for each incident or scene you’re thinking of including (you can create and organize scene summaries in our Scene Builder tool).
At the heart of great life writing (as with great fiction), there’s often a main internal conflict and/or an external conflict. A key tension or experience the autobiographer confronts.Tweet This
- A moment of awakening or discovery of purpose
- Family or personal trauma
- Career or financial difficulties
- Relationship troubles
What core experience (or group of experiences) will your story frame?
5. Allow your authentic voice
As in fiction, in life writing the voice of the memoir author helps to create a distinct sense of character.
The acclaimed memoirist and poet Mary Karr gives excellent advice to aspiring life-writers on voice in her book The Art of Memoir (2015). Writes Karr:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. It’s the delivery system for the author’s experience—the big bandwidth cable that carries in lustrous clarity every pixel of someone’s inner and outer experiences.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (2015), p. 35.
Karr cautions against covering up aspects of your own voice to appear more palatable a person to readers. She says:
The voice should permit a range of emotional tones – too wise-ass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it’s shrill. It sets and varies distance from both the material and the reader – from cool and diffident to high-strung and close. The writer doesn’t choose these styles so much as he’s born to them, based on who he is and how he experienced the past.
Karr, p. 36.
6. Avoid telling the truth in oversimplified terms
In Karr’s chapter, ‘The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader’, she discusses the value of telling the truth (rather than ‘pumping yourself up’ for your audience):
How does telling the truth help a reader’s experience, though? Let’s say you had an awful childhood – tortured and mocked and starved every day – hit hard with belts and hoses, etc. You could write a repetitive, duller-than-a-rubber-knife misery memoir. But would that be “true”? And true to how you keep it boxed up now, or to lived experience back then? Back then, those same abusers probably fed you something, or you’d have died.
Karr, p. 2.
What Karr’s words strike at is that the ‘truth’ is often something more complex than what makes us look good (or others look bad).
One of the important lessons in learning how to write your life story is how to portray people not simply as heroes and villains. Indeed, to rather show the bits of life between people’s better and worse choices that flesh out more complex portraits, with more colours (and more shades of grey). As Karr says:
It’s the disparities in your childhood, your life between ass-whippings, that throws past pain into stark relief for a reader.
Karr, p. 2.
7. Get help pulling your life story into shape
Writing memoir or a fictionalized autobiography is challenging because you are dealing not only with the standard elements of story (conflict, narrative, voice and more) but also personal areas. Some of these may be more challenging to revisit (or capture in prose) than others.
Due to the many challenges involved (including the challenge of subjectivity), don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Karr writes about sending people she’s included in memoirs manuscript drafts to ensure embellishment does not disservice the person or the story. Beta readers may provide valuable input, more so if they were bystanders or active participants in the events you describe.
You can also get help from a writing coach who will help you begin weaving personal experience and anecdote into a better, fuller story.
53 replies on “How to write your life story: 7 tips to start”
Thank you sir Jordan for sharing these tips. I am planning to write my life story. However, I’ll write a story because of the problems and negative things that happened to me in the past and I’m a little bit shame about my experiences but I want to make a story that can inspire many and motivate them. I also ask on how to start writing. Is there any chapter? and how to divide some events of your life into writing a story.
Hi Joash, it’s a pleasure, and thank you for sharing this. Life-writing can be hard because of this – that there are often traumas and painful experiences one wants to write about but there is often fear attached as sometimes society tells us these areas are taboo; that we aren’t allowed to talk about them.
A writing teacher gave a writing circle I belonged to great advice once – ‘turn the family portraits to the wall’ (in other words, banish silencing figures and, ‘What would uncle so-and-so say?’ from your writing space, if possible). You can edit for sensitivity/intensity in the passages that are uncomfortable later if necessary, but the first draft is for telling yourself the story, and nobody else’s potentially shaming perspectives matter at this stage.
There are many places to start. One of the classic autobiographical starting points is when you were born (what year, place, era, political moment). I would suggest reading a few biographies and taking notes on the opening to see the many possibilities. Ask whether the beginning is effective, what information the author focuses on, whether they start with a description, a statement, or something else. A great biographer to read is Hermione Lee – she has written many acclaimed biographies of famous writers and artists.
THANKYOU FOR SHARING,SIR JORDAN
It’s a pleasure, Gladys! No need for honorary titles 😊 just ‘Jordan’ is fine. Thank you for reading our blog.
Hi Jordon it’s nice we can communicate with you and take ideas from you I want to start writing and I’m so pleased to know you !
Hi Randa, thank you for reaching out and for reading our blog – it’s good to meet you.
I have been mulling over writing my life story and being asked by many to do so, however, have no clue where to start. I could not write using my own name as the need for my protection for others is immense. What would you suggest?
Thank you for reading this article and for your question. I would suggest changing names if necessary and writing under your own name. You could also change a few fundamental details in the story arcs of the others you wish to protect (and make it so-called creative non-fiction) so as to further obscure their identity or the possibility of readers connecting the story back to the real people involved. If it is possible, you could also ask anyone who features whom you personally know for their permission to be included as a character in your memoir. If they wish to remain anonymous, then changing their name (and some details as suggested above) would help to protect their privacy.
I hope this helps.
Hi Jordan, have been difficulties on to start my life story,what is the best title for the story do i need to mention names.
Hi Gristone, it’s difficult to advise on a title not knowing anything about the scope or subject matter of your memoir. My suggestion would be to look at the memoir and autobiography titles currently selling well and study titles for ideas – where do the titles draw from? The person’s vocation or profession, a specific aspect of their personality, a specific life experience or struggle they overcame?
If you mean mentioning names in your title, not necessarily. It could be descriptive or it could be more straight-up, e.g. ‘[Name}: [Descriptive phrase]’. I hope this helps.
I been searching and collect some ideas how to start my life story which i think can give inspiration , for those who lost hope in life.
Thank you Jordan for this write-up.
I plan to write the story of my life and I needed a guide as to how to start.
Hi Ogbu, it’s my pleasure. I hope it was helpful and wish you a good experience in writing your life story. Let me know if you have any further questions.
My book I have been working on for many years has been my life story of more trauma that seems unreal I started from birth of what I read from mom’s and grandma’s diaries in their words then what I remembered. From birth to 15 . Childhood secrets to motherhood at 16 domestic violence and drug abuse. Marriage 25 years of escaping after 9 attempts divorced never free. Stauked violated for years. Gas lighting still to this day and I am 59 years old soon. With the knowledge I know things I would have done differently and want to pass on that to anyone it may help. The name of my book is Broken -Post Vietnam untold stories of a military family what happened after the war. It’s a story of molestation, shame , guilt ,PTSD a lifetime of struggle . A mentally wounded father. And generational mentally wounded family. Most dysfunctional family hidden behind closed doors
Hi Patricia, I’m truly sorry to hear that you’ve been through such traumatic experiences and I commend you for wanting to help others through writing your life story. It’s important as a society we talk about these things and don’t just sweep them under the rug, but it is brave to confront them and bring them to light (and healing, I hope) too. Best of luck with your story. It sounds particularly interesting in that it touches on what it’s like being in a military family, as I know people who had similar experiences in military families. War is traumatizing on multiple levels and its deleterious impact is far-reaching.