Your Autobiography | Thoughts on Getting Started

As one prepares to undertake an autobiographical project, it is worthwhile to contemplate three interrelated questions: Who is the intended audience for the resulting work? What are my goals in undertaking such a project? How should I go about the process itself?

While it may not be the first question that naturally comes to mind, it is beneficial at the outset to consider your audience and have an understanding of who will read and study your finished product.

At it simplest, you can create your life story for you and you alone. You are the intended audience. You may not know exactly where your project will end up, but you may have an inkling that you would prefer to keep certain elements of the past private. You want to see where your life story project will take you, exploring the unexpected that may result. Surely facts and dates will creep in, but you suspect there is more to tell, more to reveal. An audience of one seems like a place to start.

In a second case, family members are deemed the most likely interested audience. You may approach the process from an ancestry and historical record perspective, covering such topics as who was related to whom, what did Uncle Harry or Aunt Jane do, and how did we get here, to this moment. The author would add facts and dates from his or her own life, noting milestones and accomplishments and such.

At the other extreme you may have a desire to publish your autobiography, or at the least, a memoir (focusing on a part of your life). Technology and self-publishing have made this a practical option for many. You may have a story you are motivated to share, perhaps to offer some guidance to others whose life shares similar circumstances and fate. Maybe you have first-hand observations to share of historical significance. There can be a myriad of reasons for wanting to share your story with a broader audience.

Selecting an audience option helps create structure and focus. It provides a way to enter into your personal project. Once finished, you may decide to edit and share your personal story with a broader audience, maybe a group of close friends or the entire world. Or, you may decide to edit certain elements to give to family members. You may start with the creation of a family historical record but end up with certain added chapters you wish to keep private. You can start with one audience in mind and end up with several edited end products suitable for different audiences. That is perfectly fine. The autobiographical process is not a rigid one. But where do you wish to start?

The goals for your autobiographical project will generally align or overlap with your intended audience. If your goal is to create a historical record, based on relationships, dates, facts, and family accomplishments, then likely this is of interest to family (and to yourself, too). If your goal is in some fashion related to self-discovery and personal growth, then you yourself (along with perhaps someone very close to you) is likely the target audience. If your goal is to share your story, perhaps feeling it has broad significance or is one that in some fashion could help others cope and understand life, then you likely have in mind an audience beyond yourself and those closest to you. You may have several goals, or start with one and see how it evolves. Again, the autobiographical process has many roads, some highways, some side roads, and maybe a few dead ends (perhaps with turnarounds).

One way to consider your initial goals takes into account a degree of personal disclosure. You likely will not know at the beginning of the process where you will end up, and you may get more comfortable diving into winding pathways of your story as you experience the process. Here is one way to picture thinking about the goals you have for your autobiography:

This continuum is not an either/or. One can move left or right on the line, finding a comfortable balance. I would suggest that the farther ones goes to the right, toward the self and psyche, the greater the “degree of disclosure and exposure.” Disclosure of details and memories perhaps not often discussed or recalled, and exposure to what emotions these details may evoke. Within this realm however come the ingredients for growth and transformation.

There are two main ways to approach the autobiographical process. It can be done entirely on one’s own and under one’s own initiative. Valerie Yow considers this a definition of autobiography, the doing on one’s own. The process can also be undertaken in partnership with one or more other individuals and, at least in part, in response to another person’s questions or direction, whereupon the selected other individuals may help edit and present the account. Being guided by another may open one’s mind to new hypotheses and avenues of discovery that would not be pursued alone. Being guided or in partnership with another, Yow states, is what she refers to as a life history or life story. There is no reason the two approaches cannot be combined. I often use the terms autobiography and life story interchangeably, feeling either word can encompass the totality of approaches.

The life story process also can rely on writing or telling. Both approaches are valuable. According to Pennebaker and Seagal, the act of writing has been shown to demonstrate various positive effects on mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The writing process can help address traumatic experiences, enhance one’s level of self-esteem, and contribute to the overall organization of complex emotional experiences. Writing has also been shown to have positive effects on the immune system and levels of depression. The sheer act of constructing and documenting a life story leads to a new type of knowledge and insight about the specific experience itself. Even writing a novel and the creative process it requires can reveal central aspects of the author’s actual, real-life history.

Writing, of course, can be conveniently fit into a personal schedule. It is accomplished without need to coordinate with others. It does take some determination or discipline to set aside the time to actually devote to writing. Talking into a recoding device could be done instead.

Telling your autobiography, or portions thereof, to another also has benefits. For some, more elaborate stories may be told when compared to the effort required in writing. As Jerome Bruner notes in his study of people’s lives, where he had them “tell their stories,” had he followed a different method he believes he would undoubtedly have obtained different responses and accounts. How might the act of telling aid in the investigation of your life story? Might it change or embellish in some way your written words?

Chiara Fioretti and Andrea Smorti add two relevant additional observations regarding the creation of autobiography. First, diversity in both storytelling setting and goals may have an impact on how a person recalls specific autobiographical memories. Setting, to me, includes the different approaches of writing or telling. Second, as they state, “Sharing past events with others is a natural way to recall memories.” The sharing process builds upon a certain interpersonal intimacy and aids in the enacting, negotiating, and interpreting of the recounted memories. A certain type or level of self-disclosure may thus arise out of interaction with an attentive and focused other. Sharing can be one-to-one or even in a small group setting.

One additional benefit to dialogue with another can be the imposed schedule it creates. Committing to meet with someone for the purpose of discussing your life story may help with making it happen. The meeting, once booked, creates a block of time you can devote to your autobiographical project.

As you contemplate your personal life story project, spend some time considering your options. You may ask yourself, what do I want to accomplish with my project, who is the intended audience for whatever I may create, and how do I want to go about actually creating my story? Can I do it all on my own? Should I seek another, caring person with whom to share the autobiographical journey? Consider you options and then try to just start. You can always adjust your approach as you go.