Looking for an angle on your autobiography that’ll make it just as much fun to write as it is to read? Here are my 14 creative ways to tell your story, your way…
Track by track / season by season
For some of us – the Nick Hornbys of this world – it’s easier to segment our lives by our passions. Like Nick, you might remember your life experiences according to how they fell in relation to your football team’s progress, season by season:
The promotion year of 97/98 was the best of times, it was the worst of times!
There might be a series of songs or albums, or books that help you catalogue your significant life events:
My life, From Shadows to Shostakovich!
Or perhaps it’ll be your collection of travelling documents that inspires you:
By the time I hit the big five-oh, I’d already circumnavigated the globe more times than Michael Palin has had hot dinners.
Charting your life by your passions will put an interesting spin on your life story and reveal a lot more about you in the process.
Decluttering, downsizing, and death cleaning
There comes a time in all our lives when we just have to learn to let go of some of the many things we’ve held onto a little too long. Whether you’re decluttering and downsizing, or even death cleaning you can use the experience to write your book. And the more painful it is to let go of things, the more you’ll have to write about…
If there’s one thing that many new biography and memoir writers find hardest, it’s tapping into their wellspring of emotion. Don’t get me wrong, an autobiography doesn’t have to be an emotional roller-coaster ride to be good or valid. But there’s certainly no harm in digging down into the emotional heart of your story.
So how do you turn the potential misery of decluttering and death cleaning into a positive?
I could happily write the Story of My Life in 100 Objects, and each object would trigger a story, a reflection or reminiscence that would make the catalogue of objects from my past into a genuinely interesting and surprising book.
The interesting stories would emerge from the things that are hardest to let go of… what is it about them that makes you want to hold onto them? What power do they hold over you? To anyone else, these things might look like charity shop fodder, but they can’t possibly understand the significance, or the stories attached to them until they read about them in your book.
Decluttering fans suggest you should thank items for the service they have given you before you cast them out! I think writing about them – and what they have meant to you – is a far more potent and meaningful way of doing it. That scraggy, moth-eaten old toy becomes the perfect inspiration for writing about what childhood really felt like. Telling your readers about that time you left it in the supermarket, and you cried all night, and your parents had to leave a note under the supermarket door and wait outside at opening time the next day sums up more than a time and place. It’s a little snapshot of the dynamics of your family life that conjures up so much more than any bland, well-rehearsed story about childhood.
The objective autobiography
It isn’t the easiest thing for every would-be autobiography writer to open up about their own life. One of the simplest ways of getting around that is to write your life story in the third person.
Christopher stared blankly at the stranger, unaware that she had a bone to pick with him…
It might feel strange at first, chronicling your life in the manner of an omnipotent overseer, but adding more distance and objectivity allows you to comment on the events of your life as you describe them. That’s really useful if you’re describing uncomfortable or even embarrassing events as it gives you a bit of authorial distance.
An objectively written autobiography will also invite your readers to make up their own minds about the events you’re describing, making for a more interactive experience.
Mistakes? I’ve made a few…
Your autobiography doesn’t have to tell an unceasingly positive story. And you’re under no obligation to hide the less auspicious or embarrassing events of your life. Perhaps, you can even revel in them…
I’m sure we could all fill pages of our life stories with our disastrous jobs, unrequited loves, and biggest regrets. I could certainly write several thousand words on the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons l’ve learned as a consequence. As well as helping my children to avoid some of those pitfalls, I’d feel like I was finally extracting some good out of the ‘deleted scenes’ of my life. How cathartic!
Why not have a think about the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned, and consider if that would give you an interesting angle on your autobiography?
Writing your own life story is a big undertaking on your own. If only someone close to you could help you out… Well, perhaps they can!
I’d love to see more joint autobiographies. Brothers and sisters could share some wonderful insights about growing up together. Partners could tell the story of their relationship from their own perspectives. I think the differences and similarities would be fascinating.
In Richard Hammond’s autobiography, On the Edge, his wife, Mindy, tells that part of the story when he was in a coma. What could otherwise have been a less-than-dramatic … and then I woke up … assumes a dramatic edge thanks to his wife’s retelling of her experiences during that time.
There are lots of ways of writing a joint autobiography. You can each decide on which parts of the story you want to tell. Sometimes it will be interesting to look at the same event through the different lenses of your own experiences. Sometimes, it will be interesting to fill in the blanks in stories where you have some of the pieces and they have the rest.
You don’t necessarily have to share your work with your co-writer – as that might influence your own writing too much – but do try and hold each other accountable to complete work to the same schedule.
An open autobiography
This is not the same as a joint autobiography. This time, you’re going to keep complete control of the book, but you’re going to invite other people to contribute. It could be a chapter or just a comment. You can include as many people as you like with the intention that they all add something meaningful to your story. It could be their personal reflections, or more detailed insight into events that you weren’t a part of.
You can show your contributors the parts of the story that you’d like them to contribute to, e.g.
Here’s my cliffhanger chapter ending – now you say what happened next from your point of view…
Or, if you can ask them to write about – or comment on – specific subjects without any reference to what you’ve written.
The two approaches can provide markedly different results, and the similarities and differences can be very revealing; it should certainly make for interesting reading.
A fictional veneer
I’m going to keep saying it: you really can tell your story in any way you like. So, if you want to tell your story like it’s a drama in which you’re the star, go for it. You can slip in and out of your fictional world as you wish.
In the Calvin and Hobbes series, banal, difficult, or onerous events from Calvin’s life are often presented in a fictionalised way within the fiction. He sees himself as Spaceman Spiff. You can do a similar thing. If you need to describe a challenging time in your life, you could slip into a fictional or allegorical style to do it. That can be a very effective way of saying what you need to say without going into all the gory details.
Or if you want to present your life in storybook form, you can. Perhaps there are life lessons and triumph-against-adversity incidents that could really inspire your children or grandchildren. Or perhaps you’d just like them to read about some of your stories in an age-appropriate way. Presenting those stories in classic storybook style would make a wonderfully touching gift.
Punctuate your story with lists
Who doesn’t love a good list? Lists are a great way to relay useful information that you don’t want to dwell on in your writing. Or to convey a lot of information in a very economical way. Recently, memoirist musicians like Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp have enlivened their biographies with annotated lists of things.
In my own biography, I could write lists of places I’ve lived; there have been lots. Or of the jobs I did before I decided on my chosen career path as a journalist and then a ghostwriter. Or of the most significant days in my life. Or the music I’d take to a desert island. Or even the top ten foods and drink that should be served at my wake!
These kinds of lists aren’t just interesting for their own sake, they can make your autobiography a bit more interactive. I like the idea that my children might be able to go and visit a place I lived, try out some of the things I used to do, or replay some of the songs that characterised certain events for me.
Feeling brave? Let someone else set the agenda for your book
If you’re writing your book for a specific person or people, why not ask them to tell you what they want to read about? Maybe your long-term partner knows next-to-nothing about your life before you met them. Or perhaps your friends or family have always wanted to know more about a specific time in your life. Open it up to as many people as possible, This could be their opportunity to finally uncover the answers to all those questions they were too scared to ask.
I’ll leave it up to you whether you set any limits on the kinds of questions they can ask!
The curated family memoir album
Compile your favourite, most meaningful photos and use each one as the basis for your writing. The aim here is to create a book that will work as both a memoir and a family album.
Because you’ll be concentrating on the memories that each picture evokes, it’ll free your mind. You won’t be worrying about chronicling events in order, you’ll be sharing your recollections about those days, places, and people.
One word of caution. If you choose too many photos, this kind of approach won’t work nearly as well. Curation is the key word here. Try and restrict your choices so that you’re left with a small number of photos that will really stir your memories and allow you to write something meaningful. Otherwise, you’ll just have an annotated photo album.
The gratitude autobiography
A gratitude journal is supposed to encourage writers to think of the things they’re grateful for and appreciative of on a daily basis. It’s a feel-good mantra that can help people learn to see and appreciate the good things in their lives more easily.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if you applied the same approach to telling your story?
This kind of approach won’t be right for everyone, but some people will find that it gives them a greater appreciation of the life they live and the people they love. Just as a gratitude journal can be a good exercise for anyone trying to find more positivity in their life, so a gratitude-based autobiography can help people strip away the bad things from their personal narrative and see their life in a positive new light.
A book for – and about – your partner, parents, or children
What could be a sweeter, more thoughtful gift than a book from you to them, that is also all about them?
Some people struggle for the inspiration to tell their story because they can’t work out who’s going to read it. But as soon as you know your audience, you’ll find that inspiration easier to come by.
Some autobiographies are specifically about the writer’s relationship with one or two people. And if you have a story to tell about a special relationship in your life, I recommend you write your book specifically for them.
A book about the impact your partner has had on your life, a story that sums up the experience of raising your children, or a reflection on growing old with a friend are all wonderful ways of celebrating the most significant people in your life.
The choose your own adventure style autobiography
The decision facing Christopher was stark. With his relationship in tatters and his job fallen by the wayside, should he:
Find a job in another country? Turn to 123.
Sell all his possessions and go travelling? Turn to 49.
Form a band? Turn to 302.
If you remember those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, with the same fondness as me, you might – just possibly – consider a crazy kind of autobiographical version.
Any time you are faced with a pivotal moment of decision, the narrative can branch to give your readers the options you had to consider at that time. It could be a fascinating journey for you too, as you ponder on paths not taken and reflect on how things might have gone.
Granted, you’re going to have to put a fair bit of work into making this work, but by golly, it could be a lot of fun for your friends and family as they play out your life and try to find the successful path to happiness.
The silly and / or self-deprecating autobiography
If I ever choose to write my own life story, it’ll probably be called My Own Worst Enemy on account of all the many times I’ve made my own life harder by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
By taking this kid of self-deprecating approach, I think you take some of the pressure off the serious business of telling your life story. That’s going to make the job of writing and reading the thing that little bit easier.
Anyone who can laugh at themselves and paint their life story in tongue-in-cheek fashion is going to make a story that could be difficult to read into something much more palatable. And I certainly like the idea of leaving something behind that will make people smile.
It’s over to you now
I hope that this list has given you some new ideas for the kind of autobiography that will be fun to write and read. If you try any of these ideas and enjoy using them, do please let me know. And if you’d like any extra help getting your story started (or finished) you can book a free half hour autobiography writing consultation so we can find creative ways to tell your life story.