How to Write an Autobiography

Steven Spielberg

The first thing you need to do is create a time line. Starting with your birth date, record all the significant events of your life and the dates they occurred. You might include places you have lived, jobs that you had, schools you attended, and other occurrences throughout your life.

I was very fortunate in having kept month-at-a-glance calendars for the last 20 years. I was able to go back and see what I was doing and where I was, which enabled me to record a pretty accurate time line, at least for these 20 years.

You may have to rely on other items that you have saved – high school yearbooks, report cards, bibles, letters, military records, and anything else that might help you lay out a complete time line from birth to present.

Once you have the time line finished, you can begin writing what might be a more pleasant read than simply a bunch of dates. You could begin by mentioning things that were going on around the time you were born. Here’s an example of how I did that:

“My parents met around 1932, while the nation was suffering its greatest economic depression. Herbert Hoover was President of the United States, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was next in line and would soon become the only president to be elected to more than two terms of office. Roosevelt died April 12, 1945, when I was just six years old, 1½ months into his fourth term.”

This can give the reader a picture of the world when you were born. Facts surrounding your birth year are easily found on the internet.

Early in my autobiography I described some of my family, like this description of my mother’s father:

“Leigh Rex Smith was probably an influence on me to enter show business. He worked as an art director and assistant director in early silent movies. He had white hair and a white goatee for as long as I can remember. Getting a kiss from Grandpa was like getting a whisk broom in your face.”

After setting the scene surrounding your birth and memories of your parents, grandparents and other members of your immediate family, you may wish to mention early influences that helped guide you during your formative years:

“When I was in elementary school, I was chosen to be a guest on Art Linkletter’s radio show, ‘House Party.’ I was one of those precocious kids that Linkletter wrote about in his book, Kids Say The Darnest Things. I don’t know if I’m in his book, but I certainly could have been.”

It’s important to make your autobiography enjoyable to read, and stories surrounding your childhood can certainly make for good reading.

“One of the pre-television games was one we called ‘Shipwreck.’ We’d all spend the night sitting on the living room couch as if we were shipwrecked. We were only allowed to leave the couch to go to the bathroom and then we had to come right back. Each member of the family was allowed to bring one or two items only. I was usually assigned to bring the can opener.”

Bring in stories about your childhood pets and playmates. Were you a good student in school? Who were your friends? How well did your parents get along? Did they fight, or were they loving? How did your parents demonstrate their feelings for each other? Did you have siblings? Older or younger? Did you get along? Lots of stories about growing up make for fun reading.

“My dad went to great lengths at Christmas time to perpetuate the Santa Claus concept. One year we were sitting at the dinner table and the door bell rang. We rushed to the door to find a stack of Christmas presents. My dad must have rigged wires so that he could ring the doorbell from the dinner table.”

Moving into your teen years, you could talk about your first car, your first date, where you lived, where you went to school – filling in the blanks and using your time line to keep everything in order.

“After a few months we moved into a vacant lot and lived in a tent while my father began to build the house. He hired a carpenter to assist, and the work progressed. My sister and I would prepare for school each day while my mother cooked over an open fire. This was in early Los Angeles, when the city still had street cars and blacksmiths, but I’m sure this was a strange sight in the middle of a residential area.”

A hint that is helpful is to use 3″ x 5″ index cards to write down incidents in your life. Carry blank cards around with you and write one incident or story on each one, and then put them in chronological order for expounding on in your autobiography.

Certain facts, though they might not make for entertaining reading, are relevant and should be included; for instance, deaths and births during your lifetime.

“My father passed away November 9, 1968, from a liver disease. He was cremated, and his ashes are at Valhalla Cemetery, Garden of Rest, plot H415, North Hollywood, California.”

Talk with your family about your childhood before they pass away or the memories are lost forever. Look for unique stories that will make interesting reading and yet reveal much about yourself.

Did you serve a mission? Did you join the military? Did you spend time working or studying overseas? These are first-hand experiences you can tell about.

“I vividly remember getting off the bus at the Naval Training Facility in San Diego, California. We were a motley bunch, milling around, talking, laughing, probably all scared.

“A First Class Petty Officer greeted us and introduced himself as our training officer and attempted to march us in formation to our barracks. Untrained teenagers don’t know how to march. It was a disaster.”

How did you get into the line of work you eventually got into? Was it something you sought after or did you just fall into it?

If you’re married, move into that phase of your life and tell about how you met and courted your wife. One word of caution: stories of romance can be very interesting, but please remember that you are baring your life to many people, so always use appropriate discretion.

As you can see, your autobiography does not need to be simply a list of facts; you can make it enjoyable by adding little stories and events and eventually, you will have an autobiography.

I would suggest you put your autobiography into chapters and include photos relating to the people and events that you write about. It is so easy these days to scan, size, and embed photos into your written work.

Go back and read the entire book and add or subtract items before you bind it. Your local print shop or office supply store can offer various ways to bind your book for very little money.

You will be proud of your work when you finish it. It will be your life encapsulated in writing for all who are interested to read.

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