Biographies and Memoirs: Do you want to write one?


We’ve all heard the expression: “everyone has a book inside.” Whether or not that’s true, we’re not sure. But we are sure that sometimes, when people try to transfer that book from the inside to put it down on an outside page, it can be quite difficult. To help remedy that, we’ve put together a few tips and ideas for those of you who are thinking about writing a life story, whether yours or someone else’s.

First, though, we should probably offer some clarification regarding the terms biography, autobiography and memoir. A biography is an account of someone’s life written by someone else. Usually, but not always, a biography is written after someone dies and it encompasses that person’s entire lifetime.

An autobiography, on the other hand, is written by the person who lived and is still living the life being presented in the book. Hence it is written while that person is still alive. (Should a life story ever be written by a dead person speaking through a medium, we’re not sure what it would be called. But we are sure we’d be interested in publishing it—if the life was interesting, of course.)  Anyway, an autobiography usually begins with the person’s childhood and continues up through a pivotal moment in the author’s life.

And last, we have the memoir. A memoir is a first-hand account of a particular experience or period in your life. If you wanted to, you could consider it a major subplot of your autobiography.

We’ll go into some detail for each one in later posts to help you figure out what to leave in, what to leave out, where to begin, etc. Right now, though, we’d like to discuss a few concerns all good writers need to be aware of regarding all three.

Let’s start with what might be most important: if you’re calling your book any of the three terms we’re discussing in this article, then you gotta tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but . . .  Otherwise, you’re writing fiction based on real events. Yes, it matters. If you don’t believe us, go ask Oprah why James Frey quit marketing his book A MILLION  LITTLE PIECES as a memoir and started calling it a “semi-fictional” novel.

Kind of related to that, it’s probably a safe bet to add something at the beginning of your book, maybe on the copyright page, that goes like this: This book recounts incidents, people, and places in my life according to my recollection of the events. I have related them to the best of my knowledge. Because let’s face it, we’ve all had those moments of surprise when we realized we mis-remembered something. And it would be a shame to have an accident like that come back to haunt you with a law suit (or at least massive embarrassment at the next family reunion).

Another caveat to help protect you is to add: I have also changed the identities of the people involved or created composites of them to protect their right to privacy. And then follow through and do change identities or create composites. Not everyone wants to be in your story—even if that person was there with you and even if he thinks writing the book is a great idea. You should ask the other people you intend to portray in your book if they are okay with you doing so. (If they are no longer among the living, ask their descendants.) Some folks might be happy to be included, especially if you agree to mis-remember them as being thirty pounds lighter. If so, ask them to sign a waiver releasing you from any potential law suit just in case they, or their descendants, change their mind.

Other folks may not mind being in the book, but do not want any personal details mentioned. Honor that. If they want nothing to do with the project. Honor that, too. How they feel about their presence in your book has nothing to do with the value or importance of your message. It only has to do with their personal comfort levels and sense of boundaries. While it may be disappointing for you, let their decision be an incentive for you to better your writing chops as you figure out a way to write around them.

Of course you may not be able, or even want, to ask everyone who will appear in your book for their permission. They could be from an episode that’s long past in your life and a thousand miles away. If that is the case, do consider changing their names or referring to them as “one of my teachers,” or “a fellow member of my church,” or use some other generalization. If it is a specific person you have in mind, say that guy who dumped you at senior prom, give him a fake name and obscure the details of how he looks. Sure, you may want to get even or show the world what a jerk he was. But think on it: do you really want him to get his 15 minutes of fame by suing you in the event you become a NY Times best seller with a movie deal? Yeah, we didn’t think so. We suggest you do not mention specific people like that by name or refer to them in any way that leaves the reader no doubt who the person is. People can, and do, sue authors for violating their privacy. They do not get to sue your publisher. They sue you.

Legal issues aside, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs share other concerns. An important one: similar to fiction writing, you really need to be aware of your audience. Who is it? Why would they want to read your book? What do you expect them to get from your book? What do you hope they get from it? Use those answers to form the narrative of your story and keep on track with your message.

Fiction techniques also come into play when it’s time to actually craft of your book. Making the people and places in your story come to life on the page as vividly as they do in your memory can be tricky. Most likely, your reader wasn’t there at the time of the events. She will need you to immerse her into your story. To do that, use all five senses as you describe events and scenes. Relate your emotions in physical and metaphorical terms so the reader feels them, too. And pace your words and choose them carefully to enhance the ambiance of each scene.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do when writing your personal narrative is to show your story and not tell it. To help you do that, again similar to fiction writing, engage the people in your book in dialogue or otherwise dramatize events to make them come to life. And the techniques mentioned above (using senses, etc.) will also go a long way toward showing your story.

Sure, sometimes you just have to tell aspects when you’re writing non-fiction; it’s just impossible to show them. When that happens, don’t allow yourself to get lazy. Use those parts of your book to truly show off your writing talent. Make sure your voice and your style shines through. Read the scenes out loud to another person or into a recorder. Is your passion of your story apparent? If not, try writing it as a long, one-sided conversation—maybe pretend you’re telling it to a bartender or you’re ranting to your sister in a long phone call. Or, do tell it to your bartender or rant to your sister and record the whole thing so you can write your rough draft from that oral presentation.

Of course there is more to writing a biography, autobiography, or memoir. But some people around here get yelled at when their blog posts exceed a thousand words. So that’s it from us for now. Stay tuned, though. We have lots to say on this subject! And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer them.

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