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How to Write and End an Autobiography


British science fiction writer H.G. Wells titled his life story "Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain." Despite his success as a novelist, his life was, he insisted, not much different than those of millions of others. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of people lead boring lives," writes journalist Joe Kita. "But every single one of them is trying to make some sense out of his or her existence, to find some meaning in the world, and therein lies the value and opportunity of memoir."

Outline the major events of your life. In addition to traditional life-cycle events such as high school graduation, marriage or the birth of a child, jot down the events that shaped you. For example, perhaps you cared for an ill parent, were influenced by a great teacher or painted as a teenager. Strike a balance between unfortunate events and uplifting ones.

Decide where you'll start your story. You can begin by discussing your childhood or you can start with a description of a pivotal moment in your life and use it in a prologue. Many writers start their autobiographies with a suspenseful event that occurred when they were adults in order to draw readers into their story right away.

Write your autobiography as though it were a novel by including fully fleshed characters, engaging plot lines and compelling dialogue. The best autobiographies---and nonfiction stories in general---read like fiction. This isn't to say you should fabricate material, lest you end up like memoirist James Frey. After Oprah Winfrey chose Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" for her book club in 2005, an investigation revealed he had fabricated many key sections and his credibility as an author shattered into, as it were, a million little pieces.

Highlight the absurd. "There's so much absurdity. Poverty is absurd," writes Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes," a memoir of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Life is filled with absurdities, some of which individuals don't see until years later. Think of the contradictions and ironies in your life, and write about them from your own perspective. For instance, perhaps your parents were psychologists but were emotionally distant, or you grew up wealthy but hung out with street kids. Only by digging deep and asking yourself tough questions can show you readers how and why you became who you are today.

Tell the truth about the people in your life, but don't use your autobiography to air grievances or settle scores. Write down the facts as you remember them. "It's your story," says journalist William Zinsser. "If your sister has a problem with your memoir, she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past." Zinsser adds that as a courtesy you may want to show your autobiography to key people in your life before you publish it.

End with one or more inspiring passages. Autobiographies are about "handing over your life to someone and saying, 'This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it,' " says Jeannette Walls, author of the bestselling memoir "The Glass Castle." Many autobiographies end with the author summing up her insights into her own life in a few paragraphs. The tone is often uplifting and helps readers feel hopeful about life and the world in general.

Tips
  • Try to keep your autobiography under 300 manuscript pages. Use a standard, readable font such as 12-point Times. Your final manuscript should be double-spaced and printed on one side of the page.
  • Ask friends and relatives for information to help jog your memory about events that have occurred in your life. You can also interview them and include their quotes in your book.
About the Author

Angela Brown has been a book editor since 1997. She has written for various websites, as well as National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio and more than 20 fiction anthologies. Brown earned a Bachelor of Arts in theater and English from the University of Wisconsin.

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