Whenever you write about a real person—whether yourself or someone else—you’re writing nonfiction but employing many of the techniques of a creative writer. You’ll need to consider things like character, setting, voice, and pacing, much the way a fiction writer would. In fact, these genres are sometimes called “creative non-fiction.” However, while you can take some creative license in presenting your own or someone else’s life story, remember that your readers will expect the story to be essentially truthful and accurate.
A memoir is a story written by the author about the author. The terms “memoir” and “autobiography” are sometimes used interchangeably, but typically a memoir, unlike an autobiography, covers only one period or aspect of a life. For instance, you might write a memoir about the years you spent living abroad, or you might choose to describe your career as a scientific researcher but not delve into your personal life. A memoir should also explore themes larger than your own recollections. In other words, the reader should come away from a memoir with a new or deeper understanding of something other than you.
An autobiography is the longer counterpart of a memoir. This is a work that gives a more thorough account of your life or of a recurrent theme in your life. Typically, the reader of an autobiography is interested in the author’s life and wants to understand what shaped you as a person. An autobiography would naturally include details such as the date and place of your birth, your family, friends, religion, education, talents, limitations, goals, and milestones in your life. Consider how these forces molded you into the person that you are today. Is there a climax or turning point in your story? What led up to it and how has your life since changed? If you aren’t sure where to begin, create a timeline of major events in your life and see what jumps out at you.
A biography is a written account of another person’s life. Typically, a biography includes basic information such as date and place of birth and death, family history, education, significant accomplishments or milestones, major setbacks or obstacles overcome, and the individual’s lasting impact. Remember that a biography shouldn’t just be a compilation of anecdotes. The stories you tell and information you relate should build to some larger understanding of the person or the time period. Ask yourself what forces shaped your subject’s personality. What made your subject successful? How is the world different because of your subject’s work or contribution?
Seek out a variety of reputable sources so you can create a complete and balanced picture. If you can, interview people who knew the subject and check with them and with libraries or historical societies for newspaper clippings, personal correspondence, or anything else that might provide more insight or information. Look back over old letters, journals, photos, scrapbooks, and emails to reconstruct the past. If you are writing about yourself, interview people who were important to you and get their impressions; you may gain a new perspective on yourself. You may also want to research the time period or place you’re writing about in order to place the story within a larger historical or social context.
Each story or experience you tell should tie back to the issues and themes being explored; the reader should know what each detail or story meant, why it was significant, or how it helped shape the subject as a person. What’s the most exciting part of your story? That should be the climax you build to. Who are the significant figures surrounding the subject? Those individuals become your cast of characters. What places and time periods are most important in your subject’s life? Those times and places determine the scene you need to set for your readers.
Once you’ve decided what to include, think about the pacing of your story. Consider beginning with an interesting detail or anecdote to help give insight into the kind of person you’re writing about. Don’t speed through pivotal moments; give the reader a chance to let key events sink in. On the other hand, don’t spend too much time on description or background information. You can either tell the story chronologically or use flashbacks. If you decide to deviate from a straight chronology, however, be sure to give your readers clues about what time period you’re describing, so they can follow the story’s movement through time.
Style, Tone, and Medium
Use words that bring readers into the experience with you. Be descriptive—convey the sights and sounds of the events you’re relating. Use action words and consider including dialogue. You won’t be able to recreate conversations word for word from memory, of course, but you can give the gist of them. Allowing characters to speak can help bring them to life for the reader. Your narrative voice should convey a mood and support your theme. Depending on the subject, you may be amused, conflicted, distressed, angry, hopeful, grateful, at peace, and so on.
Follow the writing adage “show don’t tell” by letting the details make your point for you. For instance, instead of saying “She was a gifted surgeon,” you might vividly describe one particular groundbreaking or risky surgery she performed and let readers infer how talented she was.
Memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies vary greatly in tone. Many histories of famous people are scholarly and straightforward. Others, particularly the stories of less prominent individuals, may take on a more literary or artistic bent. It can help to find works to use as a model. For instance, David McCullough’s John Adams is an admirable example of a comprehensive historical biography of a well-known figure. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an outstanding literary memoir, and Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela is a terrific example of an inspiring autobiography.
Finally, consider that life stories don’t always have to be written to be effective. Consider using other mediums to tell your story, including video, audio recordings, or photographic essays. For example, the StoryCorps project makes audio recordings to document the lives of ordinary Americans. There are even graphic novels such as Persepolis, which tells the story of author Marjane Satrapi’s life in Iran around the period of the Islamic revolution. Depending on your audience and purpose, telling your subject’s story in a different medium may be the best way to bring that person to life.
Fleming, Grace. “How to Write an Interesting Biography.” About: Homework/Study Tips. 05 Jan. 2007.
Schaefer, Candace and Rick Diamond. The Creative Writing Guide. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1998.