Autobiography 101: How to Write a Captivating Story of an Amazing Life
AUTOBIOGRAPHY 101: HOW TO WRITE A CAPTIVATING STORY OF AN AMAZING LIFE
These days, autobiographies seemingly overrun the book market. And it appears that anyone with a claim to fame wants to profit from their notoriety.
However, writing an autobiography is not merely about regaling readers with disjointed anecdotes.
An effective autobiography communicates a message that serves as an overarching theme throughout the work. As such, it provides readers with the opportunity to discover the real person behind the public persona.
This article will explore what it takes to write an effective autobiography. In particular, it will discuss the importance of writing one. Consequently, this discussion’s main purpose will focus on building an image that provides readers with an accurate depiction of the book’s main subject without sacrificing substance and integrity.
The Purpose of an Autobiography
When defining an autobiography, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description offers valuable insight:
“Autobiography, the biography of oneself narrated by oneself. Autobiographical works can take many forms, from the intimate writings made during life that were not necessarily intended for publication (including letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and reminiscences) to a formal book-length autobiography.”
This definition brings to light the multiple manifestations for an autobiography. As such, it is not always a question of the book’s subject specifically writing a book. This work can take shape over the years, thereby becoming a true chronicle of that person’s life.
Nevertheless, the question begs, “What is the purpose of writing autobiographical material?”
The purpose of an autobiography is to tell a story. Like all stories, autobiographies have characters that permeate the story’s landscape. Therefore, the main purpose of writing an autobiography is to represent the book’s main subject as faithfully as possible.
This representation should not become a glowing puff piece. Instead, it should represent the main character as a person of strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and virtues. Unfortunately, when writing autobiographies, many individuals fall prey to the temptation of glorifying themselves. When someone attempts this approach, the intention becomes evident straight away.
An accurate representation of an individual necessitates their insertion into their life’s broader social and historical context. As such, the purpose of an autobiography could be to portray an expanded view of society during the subject’s lifetime. For instance, the book’s subject was an influential person during a notable historical event. Therefore, the subject serves as the main vehicle for a much larger social and historical construct.
Some individuals have a story to tell. Their life could be the tale of a specific element. For example, an individual may wish to chronicle their fight against social injustice, poverty, or any other relevant issue. Thus, their life story becomes the vehicle employed to raise awareness of this issue. Moreover, this issue represents the overarching theme that marks the subject’s life.
For others, the purpose of their autobiography is to depict their life leading up to a singular moment. Consequently, the entire life is a sequence of events that culminate in a crowning moment. For instance, the subject works diligently throughout their life until they achieve a glorious moment, such as winning an award or performing an extraordinary deed.
British journalist Katie Sewell succinctly sums up the purpose of an autobiography:
“The purpose of an autobiography is to give you a first-hand account into the life of the person you are reading about, and to give you a better insight into how their experiences have shaped them as a person.”
Indeed, an autobiography is about understanding how a person’s life experiences molded them into the incredible person they are.
The added value of an autobiography lies in gleaning this individual’s life experiences through their own words. As such, readers lose the bias that comes from a second-hand account.
The Story of My Life depicts the struggles that the author overcomes with disability to lead an extraordinary life. It is an inspiring account of one person’s poignant pursuit of personal development in spite of daunting odds.
The Diary of a Young Girl is a harrowing account of Anne Frank within World War II’s social and historical context. Her story tells a much broader tale of the persecution Jews lived and how she made a difference.
While completely different in their format, both of these autobiographies manage to depict the life of an outstanding person using their voice. That is the true value of an autobiography.
Elements of an Autobiography
Autobiographies should reflect the subject’s voice as much as possible. Even when there is a co-author involved, the narrative should fit the subject’s persona. Otherwise, the first-person narrative gets lost in the shuffle.
Please bear in mind that an autobiography places its subject as the core focus of the work. Therefore, all elements must lead to the subject in one way or another.
The structure of an autobiography must respond to the specific events in the subject’s life. Thus, the most common way of structuring an autobiography is chronological.
Organizing the story’s development in chronological order allows the reader to follow the events that marked the subject’s life. This concept explains why most autobiographies begin with childhood or early life and progress into adulthood.
The purpose of using chronological order is to provide a full picture of the subject’s life. As such, it would be impossible to accurately depict the subject’s life without providing insight into their beginnings.
For subjects whose story is about triumph over adversity, starting from childhood and adolescence provides the backdrop of the subject’s formative years. Often, these formative years contain experiences that shape the subject’s personality. Moreover, difficult childhoods provide readers with gripping experiences with which they can relate.
Other approaches for structuring an autobiography include opening the story with a singular event. In some instances, individuals become renowned for exceptional achievement or accomplishment in their lives. As a result, the story begins with this episode. Then, the rest of the story tells the tale of how the subject got to that point in their life.
Opening an autobiography with a climactic event serves to capture the reader’s attention from the beginning. However, it is essential to maintain a consistent tempo throughout the book. Otherwise, there is a risk of losing the reader’s attention once the climactic event has occurred.
In contrast, starting an autobiography with factual information may cause readers to lose interest, particularly if such details are inconsequential to the overall story.
For example, details that do not contribute to the subject’s life, struggles, or success should not take up too much space in the story.
Another useful approach to constructing an autobiography consists of inserting the subject into a broader historical context.
Anne Frank’s autobiography is a classic example of this. Her tale falls within the larger scope of World War II. Hence, the historical context in which Anne Frank lived is pivotal to understand her life and plight. In consequence, explaining the wider historical environment surrounding the subject would provide greater clarification to readers.
There are additional elements to consider when writing an autobiography.
First, factual information should permeate the story’s development as much as possible. The subject must point out personal opinions, theories, or perceptions whenever applicable. That way, the reader can contrast the subject’s thought process with facts.
Second, reconstruction of dialogs should take place whenever possible. However, it is crucial to avoid putting words in other characters’ mouths. Doing so may lead to an inconsistent narrative.
Third, the subject’s voice must stand out. Contributions from other characters are welcome, particularly if they are mentors, influencers, or other famous individuals. However, secondary characters should never overshadow the subject’s voice.
Lastly, the narrative must develop the real person to the fullest extent. Embellishment or misrepresentation can quickly degenerate into a puff piece. Therefore, the narrative must strive to represent the real person as far as possible.
Writing an Engaging Autobiography
The key to an engaging autobiography lies in its narrative. Frequently, fast-paced narratives help develop a riveting story. A captivating story requires details that contribute to its evolution.
As the story unfolds before the reader’s eyes, it can slow down to address particularly challenging or meaningful events in the subject’s life. Consequently, the story must adjust its tempo to meet the relevance of the events in question.
Readers consume autobiographical content in search of details. Such details are generally absent from second-hand accounts. Thus, the work must include details that only people in the know could reveal.
This information serves to pique readers’ interest, so they continue exploring the rest of the story. At the end of the story, the reader should have a full picture of the factors influencing the subject’s life.
Gripping autobiographies contain an overarching theme. This thread is the guiding beacon that leads the reader across the subject’s tale. Common themes are freedom, racism, injustice, tragedy, or triumph. Hence, the story must revisit the main theme at various points.
For instance, the narrative should highlight specific episodes in the subject’s life that underscore the main theme’s relevance.
Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is a classic example of an autobiography manifesting an overarching theme. Mandela spent his life fighting for freedom in his native South Africa. His efforts led to his 27-year imprisonment. Then, his ordeal in prison marked a triumphant return that culminated in his election as president.
This remarkable story highlights how the subject’s story could revolve around a core theme. From there, additional details provide insight into the events leading up to the subject’s crowning achievements.
In general, autobiographies emerge from journals or personal writings. These documents provide the basis for a full-scale literary piece. Journals offer a great source of chronological information. Meticulous journal writers have a plethora of material. The challenge then becomes sorting the accounts to fit the work’s overall scope.
It is worth pointing out journals can serve to build an autobiography through their compilation. A great example of this concept is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin wrote his thoughts and feelings on a number of issues. His writings are indicative of the periods in his life. This compilation of writing first emerged in 1793. In this example, Benjamin Franklin did not explicitly intend to write his autobiography. Nevertheless, his writings enabled subsequent editors to piece his life together. Ultimately, a refined version of his life, in his voice, has become a classic of American literature.
For aspiring autobiographers, the first step often involves writing notes that simply recount significant episodes. These accounts, however brief, can lead to a much bigger account. Then, specific details serve to round out the rest of the story.
Renowned Italian film director Federico Fellini once said, “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” Indeed, readers devote their time to an autobiography in search of those precious pearls.
Mistakes to Avoid in an Autobiography
Writing an autobiography is no easy task. Even experienced writers may struggle to represent their life’s events adequately. After all, writing about one’s life is a deeply personal exercise. It can be quite unsettling to lay one’s life out there for others to see.
For others, it is a liberating experience, as it gives them the opportunity to tell their side of the story. To make writing an autobiography a fruitful endeavor, autobiographers must be fully aware of the pitfalls along the way.
The biggest mistake autobiographers make is misrepresenting events. Misrepresentation can often occur subconsciously. In other words, a subject may not realize they are misrepresenting events due to their innate bias. Therefore, autobiographers must strive to be as objective as possible while presenting factual information.
While there is definitely a place for unique ideas and perceptions, readers must know when the subject uses their judgment and when indisputable evidence supports their claims.
Also, autobiographies should never descend into self-serving propaganda pieces. Please keep in mind that readers want to find those precious pearls within the story. A self-serving puff piece will likely discourage readers from traversing across the entire story. If anything, the hype for the story should come from readers.
Another common mistake is sharing intimate details about the subject or other characters. There is a limit to the information that should go into the book. Therefore, autobiographers must exercise discretion in determining which details are too personal to include in a public piece. These details often boil down to personal or family information that does not contribute to the story’s overall development.
Autobiographers should strive to avoid salacious details, especially about other people. Doing so could quickly discredit the virtue of the work.
Lastly, it is vital to differentiate a memoir from an autobiography. In general, an autobiography encompasses a person’s entire life. Thus, an autobiography looks to establish a chronological account of the subject’s experiences.
In contrast, a memoir examines a segment of the subject’s life. For example, presidents write their memoirs focusing solely on their time in office. The rest of their life may be inconsequential for the purpose of the book. As a result, autobiographers must avoid confusing their memoirs, such as their professional experience, with an account of their entire life.
First-time autobiographers should keep in mind that writing their life’s story requires careful thought and consideration. It is tempting to write a piece extolling one’s virtues and accomplishments. However, readers give autobiographies an opportunity in hopes of finding precious insights that only the subjects themselves can provide. Therefore, an autobiography should always strive to deliver those precious pearls.
In the words of tennis star Boris Becker, “An autobiography is not about pictures. It’s about the stories. It’s about honesty and as much truth as you can tell without coming too close to other people’s privacy.” Indeed, Boris Becker sums up the spirit of an autobiography.
Writing an autobiography is telling the story of an individual’s life. This story should strive to represent the subject’s life to the fullest extent accurately. In that pursuit, an overarching theme should provide readers with the inspiration they seek.
Undoubtedly, every story has an underlying theme that makes it a singular literary piece. Consequently, autobiographers must provide an honest account of their lives without overstepping their boundaries into others’ privacy.
Ultimately, readers should come away with valuable life lessons that only a first-hand account can deliver. Therefore, an autobiography is a whole movie of a person’s life, not just convenient snapshots of significant achievements. A true autobiography recreates the true individual. It does not fabricate an unrealistic persona.
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