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What to Know When Writing One’s Autobiography

Last week, we were all about memoirs: non-fiction stories about particular times in authors’ lives. This week, we’re onto the well-respected, sometimes daunting task of writing one’s autobiography.

This is something I don’t think I’ll ever do, in part because I don’t think my larger life is all that read-worthy. Parts of it, sure. I could make a mint publishing all The Real World: Cheltenham details of my study-abroad experience in England, for instance.

Talk about drama and melodrama – mostly others, mind you. Other than foolishly falling for an English lad after telling my mom I wasn’t “that stupid,” I mostly served as the den mother for an assorted bunch of British and American nitwits.

Actually, serving as the den mother for nitwits seems to be my lot in life.


Anyway, perhaps that explains why I much prefer writing out other people’s stories overall. There’s just so much non-fiction fodder to choose from.

None of this is to say that I don’t know how to set up writing one’s autobiography. I’m a book coach and editor after all. I know how to set up any kind of writing. Right?

To prove as much, here’s your writing-related Definition of the Week.


This is the story of your life from start to present. (It can’t easily be ‘til death, since you’re the one writing it.)

Your birth. Your childhood. Your tween and teen years. Your college days if you went to college. Your experiences and accomplishments in the adult world. Each phase of your life you’ve navigated so far, good and bad, go into an autobiography.

It’s written by you. From your perspective. For your purposes. So essentially, it’s the all-about-you show.

This isn’t to say you have to painstakingly document every time you physically stubbed a toe. Just that you hit the highlights.

Take Abigail Carpenter. If she was going to write an autobiography (and if she was an entirely real-life individual), she would doubtlessly include the following segments, sub-segments and all:

  • Birth

  • Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1759

  • A British citizen

  • Fifth of five children, only girl

  • Automatically part of a military-minded family, since her father was off fighting in the French and Indian War

  • Childhood

  • Her mother died

  • Lived in a college town, which meant she was immersed in a relatively constant environment of intense opinion, mostly directed at how and why King George III wasn’t treating his American colonists with proper considerations

  • Teenaged years (even though I don’t think that term was coined until much later in history)

  • Her oldest brother got married and had twin children

  • War officially broke out in 1775

  • Home was seized by British officers in 1776

  • Youngest brother was thrown in jail

  • Met James Slasen, a courteous enough gentleman even if he was a British officer occupying her house

  • Became a spy for George Washington

  • Had to flee home after the Battle of Princeton

  • 20s

  • Left New Jersey altogether for the safer state of Virginia in 1780

  • Was apprehended by exceptionally dangerous British officer Banastre Tarleton in 1781

  • Shared a house (separate rooms) with Lord Cornwallis that same year

  • Spied for the Continental Army again

  • Saw the Siege of Yorktown usher in the last leg of the American Revolution

And so on. That’s how one goes about writing one’s autobiography.

The author describes where he comes from, explains where he is now and details everything that led from that Point A to Point B.

As admitted before, this can be a daunting journey to take. But ultimately, writing one’s autobiography can be an amazing experience – something that helps secure your future memory and present sense of self by examining your past up close and personally.

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