How to Write Your Autobiography

Your Life Is More Interesting Than You Know

Tina Fey Autobiography
Marcel Thomas / WireImage

At some point in your education or your career you will be required to make a presentation about yourself or to write an autobiography as an assignment. Some people will welcome the opportunity to share their own personal experiences, while others will dread it.

Whether you love this assignment or you hate it, you should start with a positive thought: your story is much more interesting than you probably realize.

Do you think your life is boring because you live on a farm, for example? That kind of life (feeding animals, driving tractors, collecting fresh eggs) probably sounds interesting to someone who grew up in a city.

Humans are funny: whatever we grow up with, whatever is our normal, that's what we think defines normal. But that's so untrue! People who grow up near the beach think it's normal to see dolphins every day, but people who grow up without ever seeing a real beach? They will think that sounds fascinating. Your life is not boring to other people!

These tips are intended to help you determine (perhaps to your surprise) how interesting your story really is!

Adding Some Spice to Your Life

Your autobiography should contain the basic framework that any essay should have, like an introductory paragraph with a thesis statement, a body containing several paragraphs, and a conclusion. But the trick is to make your life story an interesting narrative with a theme.

So how do you determine your theme?

You've probably heard the saying that diversity is the spice of life. While the saying is a little old and tired, the meaning holds true. Your job is to find out what makes your family or your experience spicy and build a narrative around that. In other words, you will research on your own life.

Start your research by taking a close examination of your life and taking notes on the things that make you interesting.

Your Family Background

Just like the biography of a famous person, your biography will include things like the time and place of your birth, an overview of your personality, your likes and dislikes, and the special events that shaped your life. While you might think you're ordinary and boring, you'll soon realize that your story is quite unique.

It might be tempting to start your story with "I was born in Dayton, Ohio…" but that is not really where your story begins. It's better to ask why you were born where you were, and how your family's experience led to your birth.

Every region of the world has a special story, and every family comes from a region or culture that will seem very different and interesting to others. What do you know about your grandparents? Your great-grandparents? Have you ever asked what your grandparents did for a living, or how they came to settle in a certain part of the world?

Your first step in researching your own autobiography is to gather some background story. Some things to consider:

  • What is interesting about the region where you were born?
  • How does your family history relate to the history of that region?
  • Did your family come to that region for a reason?

Your Childhood

You may not have had the most interesting childhood in the world; but then again, you may have had an experience that was more interesting the most. The idea is to highlight the best parts when you can. And always remember that the things that don't seem very interesting to you may be interesting to others.

If you live in an inner city, for instance, you should realize that many people who grew up in the country have never ridden a subway, never walked to school, never ridden in a taxi, and never walked to a store.

On the other hand, if you grew up in the country you should consider that many people who grew up in the suburbs or inner city have never eaten food straight from a garden, never camped in their backyards, never fed chickens on a working farm, never watched their parents canning food, and never been to a county fair or a small town festival.

There will always be something about your childhood that will seem unique to others. You just have to step outside your life for a moment and address the readers as if they knew nothing about your region and culture.

Your Culture

Your culture is the overall way of life, including the customs that come from your family's values and beliefs. Culture includes the holidays you observe, the customs you practice, the foods you eat, the clothes you wear, the games you play, the special phrases you use, the language you speak, and the rituals you practice.

As you write your autobiography, think about the ways that your family celebrated or observed certain days (birthdays), events (harvests), and months (December), and tell your audience about special moments. Consider these questions:

  • What was the most special gift you ever received? What was the event or occasion surrounding that gift?
  • Is there a certain food that you identify with a certain day of the year?
  • Is there an outfit that you wear only during a special event?
  • Have you ever ridden on a horse carriage? What about a hay wagon? A donkey? What about a limousine, train, mountain bike, eighteen-wheel truck, tractor, police car, power boat, sailboat, or ski lift?
  • Have you ever walked the beach or a mountain trail?

How was your experience on one of these topics related to your family culture? Learn to tie together all the interesting elements of your life story and craft them into an engaging essay.

Crafting Your Essay

Once you have taken a look at your own life from an outsider’s point of view, you will be able to select the most interesting elements from your research notes to establish a theme.

What was the most interesting thing you came up with in your research? Was it the history of your family and your region? Here is an example of how you can turn that into a theme:

Today, the plains and low hills of Southeastern Ohio make the perfect setting for large cracker box-shaped farmhouses surrounded by miles of corn rows. Many of the farming families in this region descended from the Irish settlers who came rolling in on covered wagons in the 1830s to find work building canals and railways. My ancestors were among those settlers…

See how a little bit of research can make your own personal story come to life as a part of history? In the body paragraphs of your essay, you can explain how your family’s favorite meals, holiday celebrations, and work habits relate to Ohio history.


One Day as a Theme

On the other hand, you can take an ordinary day in your life and turn it into a theme.

What were your chores as a child? Here’s something you’ve never considered: If you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point! City people don’t even know there is a difference!

If you grew up in the city, you know the way the personality of the city changes from day to night because you had to walk to the grocery store or to school. You know the electricity-charged atmosphere of the daylight hours, when the streets bustle with people going to work or to ball games in giant stadiums.

You also know how mysterious and shadowy the streets became when the sun went down and the businesses shuttered their windows.

Think about the smells and sounds you experienced as you went through an ordinary day and explain how that day relates to your life experience in your county or your city:

Most people don’t think of spiders when they bite into a tomato, but I do. Growing up in Southern Ohio, I spent many summer afternoons picking baskets of tomatoes that would be canned or frozen and preserved for cold winter’s dinners. I loved the results of my labors, but I’ll never forget the sight of the enormous, black and white, scary-looking spiders that lived in the plants and created zigzag designs on their webs. In fact, those spiders, with their artistic web creations, inspired my interest in bugs and shaped my interest in science


One Event as a Theme

It is possible that one event or one day of your life made such a big impact that it could be used as a theme. The end or beginning of the life of another can certainly affect us with a force that is so enormous that it affect our thoughts and actions for a long time:

I was twelve years old when my mother passed away. By the time I was fifteen, I had become an expert in dodging bill collectors, recycling hand-me-down jeans, and stretching a single meal’s worth of ground beef into two family dinners. Although I was a child when I lost my mother, I was never able to mourn, or to let myself become too absorbed in thoughts of personal loss. The fortitude I developed at a young age was the driving force that would see me through many other challenges…


Your Essay

Whether you determine that your life story is best summed up by a single event, a single characteristic, or a single day, you can use that one element as a theme. You will define this theme in your introductory paragraph.

Create an outline with several events or activities that relate back to your central theme and turn those into sub-topics (body paragraphs) of your story.

Next, tie up all your experiences in a summary that restates and explains the overriding theme of your life.