Six tips for writing autobiography

I recently helped a friend to write a short autobiographical account of a year in his life. The book was published and has been a bit of a success. While he was writing the book, we discussed the art of writing an autobiography. Here are my thoughts on that process, with six tips:

1) Start with a decisive incident. Just like a novel, hit the reader with something interesting from the first chapter, ideally the first line. Avoid the “I was born in … in the year …” approach. You can only get away with that if you’re already famous, in which case these tips don’t apply to you because (a) they’ll publish anything you write and (b) a ghost writer is going to author the book for you anyway.

2) Fib a little. If it’s not interesting enough, massage the facts. Add a bit of fiction to the mix. The most important thing is that the book is entertaining. You don’t have to be scrupulously honest – no one’s going to believe what you write. There are whole departments at universities composed of people who are professionally cynical about real-life accounts. They’re called historians…

3) An autobiography is not a time to pay back your friends or thank people who have helped you along the way. Like it or not, in the book everyone you know is just a character, and you should treat them as such. If a person is not essential to the plot, cut them out. Just because you had the best week of your life bashing out a couple of chapters in Monica’s Malibu beach house, that’s no reason to namecheck her in the book.

4) Make it funny. This is your whole life: there must be some fun incidents along the way. Humour is the most difficult thing to write, so write up the anecdotes before you begin the book proper, so you won’t grind to a halt when you have to compose them midway.

5) It’s not just a narrative of events. Put in anything you like. If your granny has a mind-blowing recipe for ravioli, find a place for it in the book. It all helps bring the story to life.

6) Everybody likes facts and trivia, and everyone has some specialist knowledge, be it about their home town or their job or whatever. In your writing, seek out the “I didn’t know that” factor. You want the sort of quirky details that make people stop when they read a newspaper and read something out to their family and friends. People will repeat these tales, and add “I learned that in a book by …” See? Your reputation is already spreading by word of mouth.

Some great autobiographies:

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: amongst the tragedy, Anne Frank was a very talented author. Anyone who’s been to Amsterdam will recognise her description of “ankle-breaking Dutch staircases”.

Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War by Laurie Lee. Beautiful writing with a  profound, melancholic sense of a world that has gone. Lee is the master of the character sketch and the telling moment. The middle volume describes his journey across Spain on foot, just before the outbreak of the Civil War:

My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn. The title says it all: Hollywood’s first action man was a farmer in New Guinea, an actor in rep in Northampton, and a washed-up alcoholic in Jamaica at 50. Not a nice man, but he makes no claim to be, and this book is an utterly indiscreet tale of Hollywood’s golden age. The Moon’s A Balloon by his friend David Niven is a fine counterpart, telling his own breezy story of riches, rags, powerful friends and tragic death alongside his movie triumphs. Niven’s story is a like a cheerful daiquiri in the sun next to Flynn’s straight vodka in a dingy seaside bar.

Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim and Me Speak Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. The funniest writer alive, but you wouldn’t want to be a member of his family (they’re his main source of material).

Serious by John McEnroe. “You cannot be serious!” But I can. This book is an extraordinary insider’s view of what it’s like to be a tennis pro, to be in Wimbledon, to be the number one player in the world, and worst of all, how it feels to choke in a major. It’s more about life than tennis, and McEnroe’s observations will stay with you for a long, long time.


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