It can be a daunting endeavor to undertake writing one’s “life story.” It sounds so big—and so definitive. Maybe there’s another way.
The Allure of First-Person Storytelling
When I think of traditional life story books I think of lengthy tomes, told chronologically. The first autobiography I ever read was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which was assigned by my ninth-grade English teacher; it is undoubtedly a remarkable work, and one I feel compelled to revisit someday soon—but my 14-year-old self was less than thrilled with our focus on remembering the history Franklin presented. I never got lost in his narrative, never felt like I recognized something of myself in the man.
That unimpressive first encounter with the autobiographical form was formative. I was never drawn to biographies, despite my deep love of reading and tendency to have a nose buried in a book at all times.
Then I discovered memoir. I came across first-person accounts that read like literature: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. I barely realized I was reading nonfiction. And most staggeringly, How I Became Hettie Jones—a work so moving and resonant to me at the time I read it that I sought out more: more first-person accounts, more poignant and self-reflective takes on life.
Then, in the late nineties I worked at a series of lifestyle magazines where personal profiles were a mainstay. Our highest paid writers were often those who could conduct the best interviews—for while the writing itself was important, it was the substance that the subjects revealed during their interviews that was compelling.
I devoured The New Yorker’s weekly profiles, those journalistic biographical sketches that David Remnick describes as “a concise rendering of a life through anecdote, incident, interview, and description (or some ineffable combination thereof.” I gained a new appreciation for character development through storytelling—and for voice.
And I valued the interview process itself, becoming a fan of Esquire’s Cal Fussman (who “has transformed oral history into an art form,” as Tim Ferriss describes) and Emily Nussbaum, whose byline appeared across myriad titles.
First person writing, when done well, I realized, could be as powerful as any literary fiction. It had become my new addiction.
Memoir vs. Biography
It’s pretty clear, I suppose, that chronological, all-encompassing biographies are not my thing. But is there really a difference between memoir and biography?
One definition of “memoir,” after all, is “biography.” Another is “autobiography.” Merriam-Webster does not consider the words to be direct synonyms, however.
: a narrative composed from personal experience
: a usually written history of a person's life
: the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself
Most editors consider memoir to be a first-person telling of one aspect or time period of an individual’s life—not the typically chronological account of birth through old age that constitutes biography.
“It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection—that’s what drives us to read memoirs,” says Ron Seybold.
One of my favorite memoirists, Dani Shapiro (check out her most recent book, Hourglass), has a keen awareness of the differences between these two forms of writing. “What is the job of the memoirist? Is it to tell all? Or is it to carve a story out of memory?” she asks.
“Autobiography presumes that the person writing the book is important, and the reader is drawn to the book out of a desire to know more about that person…. Memoirs are stories, hewing as closely to the truth of the writer’s memory as possible—but not letting it all hang out. Part of the art of memoir is seeing, and recognizing the story itself.” —Dani Shapiro
There is a legitimate reason that the notion of writing your “life story” (a.k.a. your “autobiography”) feels intimidating. It is a formidable task. Is it the right choice?
Continued story sharing—THAT is a main goal of every Modern Heirloom Book we create. I want family and friends to not only read your book, but to want to revisit it, again and again. To be able to pick up your book and flip to any page and dive into an alluring story. To “visit” with and feel close to you any time they want via the stories in your book.
Your stories will feel and read like memoir, and yet they are are not fully memoir. We transform your words (captured via personal interviews) into smaller narratives, vignettes that can be read on their own yet when taken all together create a broad picture of your life; a mosaic of mini profiles, if you will (yes, my magazine days have influenced my approach enormously here!).
Another bonus of telling your life stories, plural: It is that much easier to get started.
Tell one story.
Go on, do it. I bet you can’t stop at just one.
From the New York Times Archives, How to Write a Profile Feature Article
Book Review: In Tell the Truth, Beth Kephart offers up a wonderfully original series of memoir-writing prompts that encourage self-reflection & striving toward the universal.
You’ve got reasons why you aren’t telling your story. I’ve got reasons why you should.