Types of Autobiographic Writing

There are so many types of autobiographic writing that you can waste time in confusion about which kind is appropriate for your story. Here you will find definitions of each and published examples. You can read examples of the type of writing you wish to do. Read them for inspiration and think about their structure as you read. Notice what the writer does that would work for you, try to identify what devices the author employs that you don’t yet know how to use, but also notice where you lose interest and try to figure out why.

A Full Autobiography covers an entire life from birth to the present.

There are three good reasons for choosing this traditional form.

If your goal is publication but you are not famous, the full autobiography is probably not your best choice. Examples are:

A MEMOIR puts a frame onto life by limiting what is included.

A memoir may be publishable if it focuses on a topic of significant popular interest or if it is so well written that it can be considered literature.

The limiting frame may be determined by a particular period in your life, for example, your childhood, your adolescence, or your fabulous fifties.

The COMING OF AGE MEMOIR, restricted to childhood, has become a distinct literary genre in its own right.

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is a somewhat fictionalized coming of age memoir. You don’t need to be “a name” to publish this literary genre, but the writing has to be superb.

MEMOIRS OF PLACE from a multitude of regional voices have become very popular in contemporary American literature. A memoir’s frame may also be limited by a particular setting as with:

The ECOLOGICAL MEMOIR combines a sense of place with a spiritual theme which dissolves distinctions between the self and the earth. The American tradition descends from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The new Ecological Memoir carries the sense that there is a place on the planet which is right for each person and expresses one’s true self. Like Georgia O’Keeffe whose style as a painter was tied to the New Mexican landscape, some memoirists are transplants who find their voice only when they find their spot. Memoirist Terry Tempest Williams, though, realizes she was born to the land she loves. In Refuge, an Unnatural History of Family and Place, Tempest Williams writes that she does not crave travel because she finds greater depths to explore within Salt Lake City, where her Mormon family has lived and died for a hundred and fifty years.

A memoir can also be limited by the author’s RELATIONSHIP WITH AN INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP. Colette’s Sido is about the author’s relationship with her beloved mother. Simone de Beauvoir’s Adieux, A Farewell to Sartre is about her affair and friendship with the Existentialist philosopher. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is restricted by place (Paris), period (1920′s-30′s ), and his social relationships with an interrelated group of American expatriate artists and writers.

The PORTRAIT closely resembles a thematic memoir which focuses on a relationship, except that the portrait emphasizes the subject rather than the author. In Patrick O’Higgins’ Madame: An Intimate Biography of Helena Rubinstein, O’Higgins is present as protégé to the cosmetics queen, but his concentration is on Rubinstein’s life rather than his own. Geoffrey Wolff’s, The Duke of Deception, is simultaneously a coming of age memoir and a portrait of his father, a con artist par excellence. Depending on popular interest in your subject or your ability to tell the story of a fascinating character, portraits may be publishable.

Chip Jacobs’ book, Wheeler-Dealer: The Rip-Roaring Adventures of my Uncle Gordon, a Quadriplegic in HOLLYWOOD is an example of a Portrait Memoir. Chip’s book is a biography of his outrageous Uncle Gordon and journalist Jacobs’ unearthing of family secrets despite his mother’s opposition.

In addition, memoirs may be limited by A PARTICULAR THEME. There are as many possible thematic topics for narrative memoirs as for novels, and new thematic memoirs bear close resemblance to contemporary novels.

Catana Tully’s book, Split at the Root, is an examples of a Thematic Memoir. Her book explores the theme of cross cultural adoption.  It is also an example of the most difficult type of memoir writing to pull off, for it uses the “transparency” technique that interweaves several story lines into one.  Tully’s search for the secret of her “private adoption” forms the frame of a detective story upon which two other story lines are woven.

Some thematic areas have a tradition of their own:

VOCATIONAL and OCCUPATIONAL memoirs are among the oldest types of thematic memoir. The vocational memoir may cover the subject’s entire life, but is limited to those parts which relate the recognition and fulfillment of a particular “calling.”

Examples include:

Nurses, oil rig operators, hookers, and Special Education teachers have published OCCUPATIONAL MEMOIRS, as have many others whose line of work is unusual or whose approach is fresh.

In PHILOSOPHIC MEMOIRS a world view is demonstrated through the writer’s own story.

The RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY is used as a means of founding or promoting a particular faith. The Bible itself could be considered a collection of religious autobiographies. Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi also fulfills the didactic function of most religious memoirs.

A NEW SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY has also emerged which is written as self discovery rather than edification, each person finding a different spiritual myth or meaning, which cannot be a model for anyone else except as the demonstration of process. The spiritual journey turns out to be the most individual dimension of a life.

Another traditional theme common to thematic memoirs is ADVENTURE, as in THRILLING MEMOIRS, WAR STORIES and NEAR DEATH encounters. The Thrilling Memoir requires the dramatic structure of a struggle and a physical crisis, climax and resolution. While many such stories are authentic, be aware that those which appear in male appeal Soldier of Fortune magazines and female appeal True Confession periodicals are not real memoirs at all, but fictional pieces written in the first person, or “pseudo memoirs.”

The HISTORICAL MEMOIR is the one form of thematic autobiographic writing in which the importance of factual accuracy and chronology supersedes the creative imperatives of inner truth. Heavily influenced by journalism and reportage, historical memoirs are often authenticated by quotes from newspapers, letters and other verifiable, external records. The historical memoir is written not only to tell the subject’s own story, but also to document the story of his or her times. Yet even with the most conscious commitment to objectivity the historical memoir is really a settling of accounts, a selective statement of how the author wishes to be remembered in history. Examples include:

It is possible for people who are not architects of history to publish historical memoirs if they have been close observers of the events of their times, for example Holocaust survivors or Vietnam vets, although the market is now glutted with these. It is also possible to write historical memoir as New Autobiography using fictional devices. Melisssa Fay Greene’s first hand historic account of racial changes in the South, Praying for Sheetrock, focuses on a few ordinary citizens in a small town and reads like a novel.

DEALING WITH ADVERSITY is in some ways the theme of all narrative autobiography, but there is a particularly rich tradition about struggles with a particular medical or physical malady, such as blindness, cancer, or paralysis. Originally this type nearly always took the form of the INSPIRATIONAL, a struggle against odds in which the courage of the subject brings about a triumph, at least of spirit, in the end.

More recently, a new LITERATURE OF ADVERSITY has evolved which does not depend upon the “final triumph,” but which derives its value from the depth and frankness of its discussion. Nancy Mairs, an author who has multiple sclerosis and has written of it in several memoirs, said in an interview that the cliched story of overcoming illness does a disservice to people with disabilities It sets up the belief that if one just wants to get up and walk badly enough they should be able to. This message does “a real injustice to people with disabilities and to the general population in making them not experience genuine human suffering and loss and discovering the dimensions of those experiences that are transcendent.” Examples include:

PSYCHOLOGICAL ILLNESS is another publishable adversity theme in New Autobiography. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden offers a firsthand view of schizophrenia, Barbara Gordon’s I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can dramatizes the horror of one woman’s addiction to tranquilizers, William Styron’s Darkness Visible recounts his bout with suicidal depression, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation: A Memoir also explores that illness, and Donna Williams’ extraordinary autobiography Nobody, Nowhere allows us inside the mind of the autistic child for the first time, contributing to the understanding of autism as no outside psychological study ever could.

The theme of the INDIVIDUAL IN OPPOSITION TO SOCIETY, pervasive in the American novel,, also fuels a broad range of memoirs, including a rich body of gay and lesbian coming out stories, the autobiographic works of Beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, and a burgeoning, diverse literature which explores social themes of race, class, sex, ethnic or age discrimination. Recently, Mark Matousek’s Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story combined the bravado of this type of memoir — memorializing his decadent life as a male hustler and member of Andy Warhol’s Factory — with the redemptive ending of the confession.

The CONFESSION: The spiritual confession begun by Augustine follows a clear plan: the recounting of one’s sins followed by the mending of one’s ways. The key is to detail for a reader’s enjoyment all your naughtiness (this should be the bulk of the work) and then tell why you aren’t that way anymore. There are many secular examples of the form, among them:

The SPIRITUAL QUEST, unlike the spiritual Confession, does not depend upon the sinner redeemed formula. It has the episodic structure of a journey in search of spiritual perfection. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is the earliest example. Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan could be considered a pop example of the spiritual quest.

Reminiscence, Reflection, Meditation and Reverie proceed by free association rather than chronology. They tend to be the least commercial type of autobiographic writing because they don’t offer the reader a story and characters to hold onto. Carl Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections is a reverie that concentrates on the inner life of the subconscious rather than the outer life of events. His work demonstrates that within the inner world one can find specific images and details — necessary to keep such writing from becoming too abstract.

The PERSONAL ESSAY is undergoing a contemporary renaissance, nurtured by magazines such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, and the “His” and “Hers” sections of the New York Times Magazine. In his introduction the fine anthology he edited, The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate traces the form back to Seneca and Plutarch, but attributes the source of its democratic informality to Michel de Montaigne, who wrote, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”

The new personal essay is nothing like those little torture chambers of rhetoric and logical argument you had to write in English I. Freed by public indifference, it has evolved into a meditation which explores how individual minds work, how they move by free association through thoughts and feelings to small, often subtle, realizations. Structurally it is the most accepting form, allowing digressions, contradictions, mental journeys and apparent shapelessness. Like poetry, it depends less on story than on motif and asks for precision and economy of language, though in a conversational, intimate style. Unlike autobiographic narrative, the personal essay need not have the dramatic shape of a story. According to Lopate, it is structured by the progression toward personal truth, “the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”

An important key in writing the personal essay is to choose a very narrow frame, a limited, small subject which you enlarge by exploring in detail and depth. The personal essay is a tiny aspect of a life under a microscope. Outstanding examples of collections of personal essays are:

The personal essay is short enough to be manageable even by those with limited time, and it can be published in a large variety of periodicals, Those who distinguish themselves by consistently publishing essays in respected periodicals may overcome publishers’ reluctance to publish books of collected essays.

The TRAVELOGUE, the memoir of a journey can be a particularly entertaining form of autobiographic writing if it doesn’t fall into simply describing “what you saw” in dutiful chronological order. The form is at least as old as Margery Kemp’s thirteenth century “as told to” account of her travels through England as an eccentric single older woman. In our time Paul Theroux’ The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express and The Iron Rooster and Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence demonstrate that it is not so much the journey or place, but the character, feelings and reactions of the author which hold our interest. Somewhat irascible narrators seem to write the most compelling travel memoirs, probably because their exacting personalities put them into constant conflict with their foreign surroundings.

The AUTOBIOGRAPHIC SHORT STORY as it appears in magazines is often indistinguishable from first person short fiction. In writing an autobiographic short story you take a single, small turning point in your life as the epiphany of the story. Sometimes episodes in your life may suggest a particular literary style or genre, so there can be autobiographic ghost stories, autobiographic comedies of manners, autobiographic magic realism. Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories about his charmed childhood, Dandelion Wine, although memoir, reads like his science fiction.

Autobiographic short stories can be written piecemeal, published individually in different magazines, and later collected in a book. Nearly all the stories in Pam Houston’s Cowboys are my Weakness were first published in women’s or literary magazines as short fiction. Yet assembled they can be read as the memoir of a woman who keeps finding herself in relationships with guys “whose favorite song is Desperado.” An earlier example of this appealing ‘two for one’ form is Christopher Isherwood’s Berl in Stories. Each of his autobiographic stories is complete in itself, and together they make a coherent memoir of Isherwood’s life in Berlin in the late 1930′s.

The AUTOBIOGRAPHIC NOVEL differs from the thematic memoir in the degree to which it fictionalizes the author’s experiences. Pat Conroy wrote two autobiographic novels, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, about a boy’s childhood dominated by a father who, like his own, was overbearing and abusive. In both books names and identifying details are fictionalized, but the characters have the problems of Conroy’s actual family members. In The Great Santini the father is a Marine lieutenant, in The Prince of Tides he is a shrimper, but in both novels he instills the same fear in his sons.

The autobiographic novel is a solution for those who have a whopper of a story to tell, but cannot for various reasons publish it as a memoir. Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar about a teenage girl’s nervous breakdown, closely follows the events of Plath’s early life.

In calling her work a novel, even an autobiographic novel, an author distances herself from the subject matter and tells the reader, “Do not ask me about this. I have given you what matters in this story in the most beautiful language I can find. In making it a novel I have assumed a boundary of protection for myself and others. Do not cross it; do not pry.” In calling her work a novel, the author is also making a claim to its artistic merit. In some cases it is easier to publish an autobiographic novel than a memoir, but the writing must be of higher literary quality than is required of most memoirs.

The COMPLAINT differs from autobiographic protest literature because the author does not find his or her oppression in social causes but in the misdeeds of a particular person. It is a very publishable form of Portrait if the author’s subject is famous. Examples include:

It is a natural fantasy to imagine getting even with someone by exposing them in your memoirs, and revenge can fuel great writing, but for the most part complaints suffer like bad novels from one dimensional characterizations and an overly simplified Manichean vision of the world.

The CONCEPTUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a twentieth century innovation, akin to New Journalism, where the author goes out and does something outrageous or puts himself into an unusual situation in order to write about the experience. The earliest example may be George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London where Orwell intentionally allowed himself to fall into miserable poverty so he could report how men live on the bottom rung of society. In order to experience racial discrimination first hand and write Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin dyed his white skin to make himself appear to be an African-American. Cameron Crowe pretended to be a high school student to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nancy Weber put an ad in the Village Voice offering to swap her home, job, friends and lover with another woman in order to write Life Swap.

For a writer who is not well-known, conceptual autobiography may be the most publishable type if you can come up with a fresh concept, live through it, and write about it with insight. But such life experiments can be dangerous, and they are essentially artificial. Sue Estroff, a social anthropologist, wrote about her attempt to live among the street “crazies” in Madison, Wisconsin’s flop houses to study their culture. She wrote a profoundly moving account which demonstrates that how we treat the mentally ill makes them more crazy, but in the process of living like them and even taking their medication, she nearly lost her own sanity.

All the best writers who have tried to become someone else in order to write about it have learned that you cannot really know another’s life experience. You can gain insights, you can observe other people’s reactions to how you appear, but still you are yourself assuming a costume and a role.

Autobiographic WORKS OF HUMOR range from vanilla souffles to black bitters. Erma Bombeck wrote autobiographic personal essays and books about ridiculousness of domestic life such as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries what am I doing in the Pits?. S.J. Perelman showed the humor in cultural misunderstandings in The Swiss Family Perelman, about his family’s temporary relocation to Thailand in the 1940′s. Art Buchwald mixes his practiced wit with painful childhood memories in Leaving Home. Comedian Rick Reynolds developed a successful one man show, “Only the Truth is Funny,” based on the professional and personal failures of his life. It was when he gave up, moved to a small town and wrote only the truth to please himself that he came up with a work that brought him success.

FAMILY HISTORY or the FAMILY SAGA is often considered a form of autobiographic narrative because it is one person’s exploration of self-identity, but it is not “I” writing about “I.” I have noticed that writers who try to record the stories of ancestors along with their own life often end up with two works instead of one. Family histories can fall into the dutiful and often laborious tracing of the family tree and the telling of disconnected anecdotes, unless enlivened with fictional devices and the an ever-present narrator’s voice.

If you wish to publish a work about ancestors, you will have to write it like a novel with all the devices and drama of fiction. The most famous published example is Alex Haley’s Roots.

DRAMAS and FILM SCRIPTS can be autobiographic works. Eugene O’Neill’s and Tennessee Williams’ powerful dramas are based on their experiences, and solo showcases based on a writer/actor’s own life are currently the rage. Dennis Palumbo wrote the script of the film My Favorite Year about his initiation into the television business, but autobiographic film scripts are rare. To fit your story into the structural requirements of a multi-character play or film demands a distance and objectivity about your material that few autobiographic writers have or should have. However, it you chose to try these forms, you’ll find the story structure guidelines in the previous chapters indespensible.

OTHER FORMS of autobiographic writing include some literature for children or young adults, personal newspaper or magazine columns such as those by Anna Quinlen, Ellen Goodman, and Ellen Snortland and personal magazine articles such as those in Reader’s Digest and Reminisce magazine.

ORIGINAL FORMS AND HYBRIDS. The most exciting examples of New Autobiography are combinations of forms which have never been tried before. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is simultaneously a memoir, a novel and a cookbook. In Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, about having been committed to a mental institution, each chapter has qualities of poetry, the personal essay, and the short story. There are no transitions between chapters, but altogether the work is like a novel in that it follows a small group of characters and completes each of their stories. It also harks back to the historic memoir in that it includes validating documents, namely photocopies of hospital forms completed by Kaysen’s psychiatrists and nurses. The book’s combination of subjective narrative and clinical documentation emphasizes its thematic conflict, giving two opposing answers to the narrator’s question – was she or was she not sane? The impersonal nature of the clinical reports of her mental illness contradict the human intimacy and sanity of her narrative writing.

Having Our Say, a surprise bestseller adapted as a Broadway play is experimental in form because two sisters in their 80′s, Sarah Delany and Elizabeth Delany, collaborated to write one memoir. But perhaps the most original form of New Autobiography to date is Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. It is a comic strip in which Jews are mice and Nazis are cats, and, at the same time, an autobiographic exploration of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who recalls for his son his terrifying memories of being a hunted by Nazis.

In addition to these recognizable types, there are some important American traditions of autobiographic narrative. Within the AFRICAN-AMERICAN TRADITION can be found some of our most outstanding examples of autobiography, memoir and the autobiographical novel. The tradition begins with slave narratives told to white writers, but freed African-Americans quickly recognized the need to write their own stories. Early on their quest for freedom is linked with their quest for literacy. The critic Robert Stepto traces the primary African-American archetype of the articulate hero, who discovers the links between freedom, struggle and literacy, to the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Other examples are:

AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN have created their own tradition with its own archetypes. Critic Joanne Braxton points out that articulateness is important for African American female hero, too, and she identifies two common figures, the sassy female “trickster” and the “outraged mother” both of whom rely on invective, impertinence, and ritual invocation for protection. In contrast to the solitary black male hero, she participates in a collective wisdom of courage, ingenuity and love handed down from a beloved female figure, often her grandmother. In almost all examples of African-American women’s autobiography there is a period of perilous adolescence in which the heroine becomes aware of gender difference as well as racial prejudice. Often it is motherhood, no matter how early or difficult, that opens the pathway to her greater self-awareness and self-respect.

The African-American tradition of female autobiographic writing includes:

I have wondered why it is that in the arena of American autobiography African-American women’s contribution has been more outstanding than that of their white sisters. I believe it is because white women, especially those who were privileged or middle class, had far more to risk by speaking the truth of their lives. Until recently they have not been willing to risk that privilege; now they, too, are becoming fierce with the truth.

The ASIAN AMERICAN TRADITION is indebted to the African American tradition in recognizing the need to own anger in order to find an authentic voice. But issues of conditioned passivity and ingrained respect for parents and one’s heritage are particular to the Asian-American tradition. Probably because they have been in the United States longer, Chinese-Americans have made a stronger contribution to autobiographic writing than other Asian-American groups to date.

The LATINO AMERICAN TRADITION, like that of other ethnic minorities in the States, is about finding one’s voice, but with a particular conflict between the narrator’s self perceived in Spanish versus in English. Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory, the Education of Richard Rodriguez is a thematic memoir which explores the conflict between Spanish as the personal language of home and intimacy versus English a public language of commerce and achievement. His Days of Obligation: An Argument With my Mexican Father participates simultaneously in the Mexican American tradition of autobiographic writing and in the tradition of gay coming out literature. Sandra Cisneros’ memoir The House on Mango Street shows the influence of Latin American literature on Latino American memoir writing.

The first generation of JEWISH AMERICAN autobiographic writers dealt with immigrant experience and the Holocaust; later generations are dealing with different aspects of assimilation. Examples include:

The NATIVE AMERICAN TRADITION is so different from the Euro-American tradition of individuation through written memoir, that it stands in reproachful contrast to the underlying assumptions of this book. Native Americans have a strong oral tradition of autobiographic storytelling which conveys the values of the community and creates continuity between past and future generations. It is autobiographic in that it tells wisdom learned from life experience, but most do not have identified authors; they are the tribe’s stories. I’ve suggested that to find a story in your life you decide where it begins and ends. From a Native American perspective, stories have no beginnings or endings. They are fluid, recycled, and acquire new meaning each time they are told. They are a sort of Rorschach test where the listener comes to understand the meaning later through his or her life experience.

In addition to the oral tradition, there are over 600 published works which are called Native American autobiography, but over three-quarters of them were written by Caucasian anthropologists who imposed their own meanings and values on the lives they recorded. This has established a kind of collaborative tradition of its own which is quite controversial. Combining both the native oral tradition and the written collaborative tradition, Greg Sarris wrote a portrait of his grandmother, Mabel McKay, Weaving the Dream.

Mabel, a Pomo Indian medicine woman and basket weaver, could not understand why her grandson, a professor at UCLA, kept worrying about finding a theme to tie together all her stories for his book. “Why would you need to tie them together?” Mabel asked — another example of how differently Native Americans view autobiography.. Sarris says that he never did succeed in giving his work conventional thematic unity, but he did, in writing it, succeed in unifying himself. Born Native American and Filipino on his father’s side and white and Jewish on his mother’s, Sarris grew up feeling illegitimate about his identity until, like his basket weaver grandmother, he was able to make a whole from the fragments. In order to be true to who he is Sarris had to create a composite form from at least three pre-existing traditions. In so doing he also participated in the evolution of the Native American tradition of autobiographic writing.