Writing Autobiography

5th October 2020
5 min read

I once went to a lecture by a top Hollywood screenwriter (or so he told us) and during the course of his seminar – and yes, with all of the self-importance one might expect from someone working in movies - he made this statement about creating memorable characters:

Paul Heiney

“Remember this: there is no single person who has led such an interesting life that their story has to be told in a Hollywood movie.”

We laughed, and you probably scoffed too. Surely there are hundreds of people! But thinking about it, he has a point, and one that all autobiographers should bear in mind. What he was trying to say, and we eventually teased out of him, was that much of life is hum-drum, routine, and of no interest to anybody at all. But a good writer must remove that dullness, rather like a gold prospector separates the silt from around the nugget, and turn an ordinary and arid tale into a shimmering one. Autobiographers, in particular, face this challenge.

In these days of self-publishing quite a lot of autobiographies seem to land on my doorstep, and those that begin with the words ‘I started school at the age of five...’ make the heart sink. What follows next is usually a blow by blow account, day by day, year by grinding year, of everything that had happened to them. They might as well list every pork chop they have ever eaten for all the reader attention it is going to get. (There are exceptions, of course, as when such accounts are written for family archives to inform future generations and are not intended for a wider readership).

But if those first few words continued and said, for example, ‘I started school at the age of five and I remember it well because that was the day war broke out,’ or, ‘I started school at the age of five to find myself the only child in the class without shoes. It was also the last time I saw my mother…’ then that’s a bit different. Because what’s happened here is that the writer has now picked up the tools of the storyteller and moulded his/her life into a tale worth telling using all the dramatic and narrative skills they can muster.

One Wild Song

Good storytellers know how to keep readers turning the page; they employ inciting incidents, stories as journeys, the dramatic twist that keeps readers engaged, the triumph of good over evil, or vice versa. Characters need to be strong. As Pete Docter, the hugely successful film director of Pixar films said: 'What you're trying to do when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life than made you feel some particular way. And what you're trying to do when you tell that story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling'. So that's one more thing to add to the list; your reader needs to come away feeling they have lived your life with you.

It's therefore probably a good idea for a potential autobiographer to spend more time thinking about where the real drama in their lives might be, and less trying to plod through every detail of what happened to them over the previous fifty years.

Also remember that most people lead more lives than one, and the first decision that needs to be taken is which life are you going to write about and which face you want to reveal to the world? No matter how little you might intend it, you will find yourself creating a version of yourself, which may be far removed from the original. You won’t be able to resist doing so. I have been lucky and been many things in my life – from a writer and broadcaster to an organic farmer and an ocean sailor. Each one of these could be made into a book in their own right. In fact, my book One Wild Song, which recounted my largely solo voyage to Cape Horn and back, has been read by some as partly autobiographical, and I suppose it is. In it, I reflected on the nature of the voyage seen through the prism of the loss of my son. Wanting to share the salty tale, but also needing to share my thoughts on loss and grief, I took my understanding of how stories need to be driven to make them readable, and decided to marry those two, apparently unrelated threads in my life – the sea and my son. But I did so only after a great deal of thought on how each part of the story reflected off the other, while ensuring there was a few laughs along the way; I had no desire to join the ‘misery memoir’ industry, which would arguably have been much easier.

Finding the prism through which to view your life, then, is perhaps the most important aspect for anyone writing autobiography, and the first step along the self-revealing road which the autobiographer must walk.  How do you want to reflect your life? Most lives have ups and downs which, taken as a whole, can make for a pretty average kind of story. But looking through that prism, as it reveals all the different kinds of life you have led, you need to search for the 'real story' that hides there; a story so intriguing that it is bursting to be told, and write it in such a way that your reader cannot resist coming along for the ride. Spend time considering it, and all its implications. It might mean that chunks of your experience have to be cast aside to give your story structure, but save them for another book built around a different theme. Make yourself into that swollen character who is so substantial that only a Hollywood film can accommodate you, but perhaps stick a little closer to the truth than that genre often does.

And just for the record, “I started school at the age of five and not much happened for the next ten years…” is never going to fill pages. Nor cinema seats for that matter.

Paul Heiney is a well-known writer and broadcaster with seafaring in his blood. His family, originally from Yorkshire, were beach fishermen and lifeboatmen. He has sailed enthusiastically for over 25 years, making many single-handed passages. He is the author of One Wild Song and Ocean Sailing.

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