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. For example:
- 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.