Saturday 7 January 2017

New Year Autobiography Exercise

I'm predominantly a fiction writer, but people often come to me asking advice about writing their life story.

Really, the two things are not so very different. The same things that make fiction gripping, make for an interesting life story:

  • Truth
  • Honesty
  • Mystery
  • Adventure
  • Momentum
  • Insight

The tale is in the telling - how you present your story.

New Year makes for a good time to practise writing biographies and autobiographies.

  • Autobiography - when you write about your own life
  • Biography - when you write about somebody else's life

Rather than attempting to recount the whole of your life in one go,  let's take a single year to begin with. A good autobiography isn't about how many small details you can recall, but about what makes your life truly interesting. People read biographies to live experiences they never will. You're the tour guide to your own world.

A subject I touched on briefly in Lucid is the aboriginal concept of time. In native Australian culture, time isn't generally linear. The things that you remember most clearly, that have the biggest impact on your decisions in life and your sense of self, are the closest in time. You don't remember what you had for breakfast this time five years ago? That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it's not important. Yet the way someone looked at you in high school, the tone of voice your mother uses when she's angry - those things happened a moment ago.

This is really what you're looking for in a good autobiography. What are the things that make you, you. What makes your life unique?

What's your aboriginal timeline - what is close in your memory, and what is very far away?

Break open the post-it notes and colouring pens.

What were the big events that happened to you in 2016?

When you close your eyes and let your mind wander, what rises to the surface first?

Each year I do an Oath, Boast & Toast roundup, featuring some of the highlights from the last twelve months. I tend to put them in order of the things that made the biggest impression, rather than chronologically from January to December.

Do this for yourself. Brainstorm the things that happened to you. If you keep a dairy, it might be useful to refer to it, but try not to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia. Go for the really big things that feel significant.

Aim for five or six experiences. If you have more than that, start cutting back. Rank the post-its in order of importance and drop some off the bottom. Remember, an autobiography isn't an account of everything you've ever done, but the things you've done that will really interest other people. The stuff that gives a real insight into human nature, and what it's like to be somewhere, meet someone, or do something that others probably haven't.

I'll post another time about chronology in storytelling, but the two key things to remember are:

1. The order of time is often less interesting than the order of reason

What this means is that whether something happened on a Monday or a Wednesday, really doesn't mean much to your reader. They won't remember it five pages on. But why something happened - the cause and effect - is important. Why a character got blindingly drunk in a bar and started a fight is far more interesting than what time of night he started it. In an autobiography, you are your own character. Help the reader to understand why you did the things you did, and how previous experiences converged to create that moment in time.

2. Start in medias res

This is a literary term simply meaning 'in the middle of things'. It's the opposite of David Copperfield (I am born...) or the Bible (In the beginning...). 

Instead of: I was born... I went to school... I graduated (or didn't)... I was in a terrible car crash... I got married...

Start with the car crash.

Begin by describing whatever is at the top of your memory list for the past year, the anecdote you're most likely to tell at parties, then take it from there.

Have a think about how the experiences on your list connect with each other.  Try to shuffle your vivid moments into some sort of order. You can peg them to a washing line, space them in a circle with a central event in the middle, stick them to a sheet of flipchart paper and draw joining lines. Whatever works for you visually.

When we tell stories about ourselves, we very rarely keep to a straight timeline. We bounce about, changing the direction of our narrative as we remember things we had forgotten and things that came before, or after, but are related to what we're talking about now. Next time you're having coffee with a friend, or asking a grandparent about their early life, pay attention to how they tell their story.

It's perfectly fine to do this when writing an autobiography, so long as things don't get confusing. If your sideline runs for more than a paragraph or two, perhaps devote a new chapter to it. 

When sectioning up your autobiography, do it by theme, not time. Instead of:

  • School
  • College
  • Work
  • Travel
  • Retirement


  • Discovering my parents were human
  • First love
  • Realising life is worth more than money
  • Stuck up a tree in Timbuktu
  • How to cope with ageing

You've found the defining moments of last year, now find them for a lifetime. Use each chapter to talk about a theme, and use your life experiences to illustrate that theme. 

See where you get to.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant - inspiring - very helpful - thank you Marion! As a person who has been dithering for years to start a vaguely auto-biographical account of how i ended up alone with a Basque baby in a renovated sheep shed in the Pyrenees (and whose journey started with a man in a wheelchair in a snowdrift in Copenhagen ) this may be just what i need to hang it all together! Cheers!