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”
Hello and thank you. I enjoyed reading your article. I am considering writing my life story however I am not sure of whether I would like to write an actual tell all/novel/biography-book or if I would actually like to write a screenplay instead. A lot of your methods can be translated the same way when writing a screenplay. I would eventually like my story to become a movie. Should I write the book 1st or just go straight to the screenplay? Which is a better route?
Hi Tony, thank you for your interesting question. Many screenplays are based on novels or biographies and I think it helps to write in book-from first, since you then have the shape of the story down, the research (if needed) and other elements such as characterization in place. From there you could whittle and carve the best possible use of mise en scene, dialogue etc. out of what you have. It would be an interesting way to build a sound framework for a tauter screenplay in other words, I’d say.
I need to write my life stories but is confused. I know it can change someone’s life or journey . I have been saying this for 20 years or more ….why am I not doing it ? ….
Hi Dawn, thank you for sharing that. All I will say is: Start! 🙂 And thank you for reading our blog.
I want to write my life stories very interesting, but some negative idea comes to my mind. That is my story is not so much important, i am not knowen person any field of work,…etc. But now i get clues ,so i am initate to write my own autobiography.
Hi Zenenbe, I’m glad you’re writing regardless of those doubts. It’s natural to have doubts, but there are stories worth telling and sharing in every life – whether the teller is famous/well-known or not ?. Good luck!
Your tips are very helpful. I have started entering short stories competitions (written in first person)for practice! Now starting on Fictional/factual life story and find Tip 1 and 3 helpful to give my characters fictional names and feel comfortable also using 3rd person i.e.she. Also more confident about introducing fictional events into my story to make it more compelling for the reader while still being authentic.
Hi Lyn, I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s great you’re entering short story competitions, that’s great practice. Absolutely, many non-fiction authors embellish for the sake of story. Good luck with your contest entries!
Wonderful article. Just wanted to let you know of a new service that helps you in putting together your life story. https://www.huminz.com/
It makes writing your story fun. And then brings your story to life
Hi Etan, thank you and thanks for sharing your web app for memoir-writing, it looks interesting.
It’s been long overdue, I’m 54 yrs old now. I finally have come to terms in writing an autobiography of myself. Life experiences I have encountered from my 1st memory as a child. At the age of 4yrs old, the year was 1971 Christmas Eve. First memory to my life awaken by the Jaws of life. My mind has been a camera through every moment in my life. What would be read on the publisher end, would be so intrigued to see all the drama, hardships. Caught up in how I survived my dilemmas, with all to be said, physically be right their with me. So consumed from your start of my life to relive my nightmare. Totally lost on how I still have so much compassion & love till this day. Never a dull moment adventure ,trauma, abuse, raped, child molesters. I’m ready to bring it all to an end to start a life I was expected to do as child in middle school. Looking forward to replaying the camera that has consumed my eyes & life experiences. Not sure where I will have to submit my book when I have achieved my story.
Hi Kathleen, thank you for sharing that. It’s never too late to share one’s life story (and from the subject matter you mentioned, I’m sure your courage in telling your story could greatly help others who’ve been through similar life experiences). I’m glad you’re looking forward to the process – go for it. Once you have a first draft you could think about submission (for now I’d say focus on the task at hand which is getting the first version of your story down).
I find the article really useful.Thank you so much for the enlightenment.
I have more than twice in my lifetime thought of sharing my life story through a book,but have often felt like it was a load of work to do so.
But reading through your article and also reading through the comment section,I feel like its the right time.Thank you so much for being an inspiration especially with me as a beginner.
Hi Mere, it’s a pleasure, thank you for reading our blog and for sharing that. Writing is a lot of work, but it’s rewarding work I’d say. I hope you enjoy the process. Feel free to join our writing groups where you can chat to others at a similar stage of the journey.
That is nice,and thanks for that
Ok,I need your help more
Hi Mary, thank you for reading our blog and a Happy New Year to you. What would you like help with? Please feel free to mail us any questions at help at now novel dot com.
Hi , i wanted to write my life story, how to start?? Any help?
Hi Hana, thank you for sharing your question. I would start by brainstorming a list of key/significant events in your life you want to include, as these you can then plan scenes and scene structure around; once you know what experiences in your life you want to tell most. As a guiding principle, I’d suggest brainstorming incidents that are:
This is a loose starting point but I would say is a good preparatory process for sifting through memories and ideas and finding topics and subtopics to organize your life story around. I hope this helps!
I’d also recommend reading a few memoirs from recent years to build a deeper sense of how people are representing their lived experience in book form. What are the narrative devices used (e.g. is it told in one continuous, linear narrative or using flashbacks or secondary formats such as diary entries?). There are so many ways to organize the information in life-writing. Have fun with it!