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Types of Biography and Autobiography

Every family has at least three great secrets waiting to be told.  Writer, Stephen Poliakoff.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common.  Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle

 

Biography, autobiography, and memoir can all be gathered under the general heading of Life Writing, which is simply ‘the recording of selves, memories and experiences whether one’s owns or another’s.’ So if your family catch you scribbling or recording away and ask what you’re doing you can loftily reply, ‘I’m writing/recording my memoirs’ and fix them with a look which will leave them nervous you’ll include that embarrassing incident. Or even worse leave them out altogether!

Life writing doesn’t have to be a straightforward linear narrative from youth to mature years.  It’s your story (or your relative’s) and the way it’s presented can be equally original and imaginative.  Most of us assume that biography and autobiography takes a cradle to grave approach, but perhaps you passionately want to show your reader what life was like as an evacuee or your wild times as a teenager in the 1960s.

Sometimes the initial urge to write can spring from the desire to understand a particular family trait, or one of those little family secrets.  Maybe the joke in your family was that your grandfather was always very careful with money.  Could this be related to the ‘scandal’ you’ve heard whispers about?  Or maybe your dad’s workaholism is because he came to England as a refugee?  Perhaps there’s an unusual antique or piece of crockery in your house with a story behind it?

You might want to write down your life story for posterity.  Memory is a strange thing.  We have all experienced being able to remember an event of over thirty years ago, with crystal clarity, yet be unable to recall what we had for dinner last night.  Perhaps jotting down our clearest memories can be a good start.

There is no right or wrong way to approach your story or that of a family member, but here we look at the different types of life writing to give you some ideas.

Autobiography

An autobiography generally focuses on the trajectory of an entire life.

It usually follows in chronological order.  A good example is Nella Last’s War.  Nella began writing for the Mass Observation project in 1939 and wrote over two million words, charting everyday life for ordinary people.   Her confidence grew and she wrote about depression, and that her marriage sometimes made her feel like a slave, which ran counter to the rosy picture of domesticity usually presented. But nobody had asked an ordinary woman to write about her life before.  Writing gave Nella confidence and a sense of her place in the world.

When writing your whole story, ask why a lot.  So rather than just beginning with, ‘I was born in Yorkshire’ – why were you born there?  Did your family move there or had they lived there for centuries?

You don’t have to write from cradle to grave in an autobiography either.  In Alexander Masters Stuart, a Life Backwards, Masters explores how his friend Stuart became a career criminal by starting with his adult life and working backwards through his troubled adolescence, family and schooling to discover why he ended up the way he did.

Memoir 

Memoir focuses on a key aspect, event, or theme in a life, such as:

  • Your early years as a deckchair attendant, so you chart the changing attitudes towards beach holidays, exposure of flesh, the British Seaside
  • Your experience in World War Two as a Warden
  • The love letters between you and your love separated by a disapproving family or a war
  • Your experience as a teenager in comparison to your own father

A memoir can start anywhere and move around.  It’s not bound by chronology.  This form of life writing may suit you if you have the desire to write about a particular point in yours or someone else’s life.  Also it’s more personal and strives for emotional truth.

Examples of good memoirs

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

Writing about her dismal childhood in 1950s Wales is not something that would make a publisher’s eyes normally light up.  But Sage writes with such elegance and wit, taking us up to her first class degree which she managed with a small baby that you are cheering for her by the end.  Perhaps she chooses to write about her early life because once she graduates, her own blood takes over.

Toast  The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater

This book recounts the early years of food writer Nigel Slater, from his mother’s struggles to cook through to her death and his father’s remarriage.  It’s a prime example of a memoir where nothing majorly dramatic happens but Slater’s voice is honest and he uses food as a sensory spring to memory as he takes us through his childhood and adolescence.   The book is structured like a lucky dip bundle of headings, mostly connected to food and each evoking a 1960s childhood i.e. Spaghetti Bolognaise, Arctic Roll, Butterscotch Flavour Angel Delight.  Since Nigel is a professional cook, the recipes provide natural prompts but this is a format that could translate to other subjects.  Suppose your parents met through their shared passion for amateur dramatics you could use theatre programmes to tell their story.  Or use a box of old photos.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt opens his memoir of his Catholic childhood with ‘worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse still is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’  An opening to the Pulitzer prize winning book that demonstrates McCourt’s dry sense of humour that permeates the entire book.  Despite the title and the content, Angela’s Ashes was no misery memoir – it’s shot through with an impish humour.   But he didn’t write it until he was in his sixties – perhaps after gaining a sense of distance.

Don’t assume however, that in order to write a childhood memoir, you have to have had a rotten one.  Andrew Collins, Where did it all go Right (Growing up Normal in the Seventies) opens with this:

Andrew Collins was born 37 years ago in Northampton. His parents never split up, in fact they rarely exchanged a cross word. No-one abused him. Nobody died. He got on well with his brother and sister and none of his friends drowned in a canal. He has never stayed overnight in a hospital and has no emotional scars from his upbringing, except a slight lingering resentment that Anita Barker once mocked the stabilisers on his bike. Where Did It All Go Right? is a jealous memoir written by someone who occasionally wishes life had dealt him a few more juicy marketable blows.

But aside from keeping a diary so he could remember ‘what he had for his tea’ every day, Collins is writing about his seventies childhood and his lightness of touch and humour makes this a great read.

Group Biographies

Writing about two or more people who have a natural symbiosis can give the reader more for less.  James Fox’s The Langhorne Sisters is both a group biography and a family history where he uses letters and diaries to examine the lives of his great aunts and grandmother.   Perhaps you want to explore attitudes to marriage in your family and gather together the letters and conversations of all your female relatives.  Or maybe you discover a ratty old teddy in the attic and set out to find who this teddy belonged to – and discover it was passed down to three generations.  So Horace, the Story of a Teddy, becomes a group biography of all the family members who owned him.

Writing Tips

Try writing a draft at least in the first person present tense (I am four and my dad wheels in a huge bike).  This has the effect of bringing your reader closer to the four year old ‘you’ and it also has an effect on your memory.  You may well find that you remember far more when writing in present tense trustmypaper writers explain.

Small sensory details bring writing to life.  Don’t just tell us what your favourite toy looked like, what did it smell like? What did cod liver oil actually taste like?  Death on a spoon?  Like an oiler Brighton Beach?  Anything other than ‘horrible’.  We know it tastes horrible but it doesn’t tell the reader anything.  Try and find ways to describe something that aren’t just ‘nice’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘horrible’.   Describing a person as ‘beautiful’ doesn’t tell the reader anything about them. What was it that made them beautiful?  When you dig past your initial choice of adjective you’re likely to come up with something much more interesting.  Maybe the delicate golden freckle on the right hand side of her nose made her beautiful.

Showing the reader is always more successful than telling them.  Suppose you woke one night in your granny’s spooky house and heard a creak?  Writing ‘I was scared’ doesn’t show us your fear as much as ‘I sat bolt upright in bed, icy fingers creeping down my neck.’

Be specific.  Saying that you hated school is one thing but why did you hate it?  Was it the grey mashed potato? The teacher who had eyes like boiled haddock?  The itchy school trousers?  Little specific detail will make your writing sing.  And your memory live on.

IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING…FILL OUT THIS LIFE STORY QUESTIONNAIRE!

We know that people often have the best intentions about writing their memoirs. It is something that so many of our friends and family intend to do and yet it is something that many people put off indefinitely. This is most understandable. It is difficult to take time out to undertake such a task and even more difficult to write about your own life. So where on earth to start?

To make life a bit easier, we have put together a questionnaire for you to use as a starting point to record key details about your life. We have compiled it using questions that we would have liked our grandparents to have answered while they were still with us. I would have been thrilled if my grandfather had filled out all the answers to this questionnaire. For one thing, I would know where he was born (I can’t locate his birth certificate) but also, key details about his life, which are now completely lost to me. And even more interestingly, I would have had the benefit of sharing some key reflections on his life – for instance, what his one wish would be, how the world changed during his lifetime, his best day on earth.

Our advice is that even if you do not record anything else about your life, print this document out now and start filling it out. Take your time – do one question a day if that is what it takes. It may be that the process is so enjoyable that it prompts you to start recording your more extensive memoirs. But even if it does not – no great drama – make copies of the questionnaire and give it to your children and grandchildren. Talk to them about your life. Start a dialogue about the history of your family.

And if this notion offends you – because you don’t think anyone will be interested in your story or you do not feel comfortable talking about your life – then just print it out and leave it in a drawer somewhere, for your family to eventually find. In my opinion, it would be the ultimate gift to loving family members. I know I would have been so happy to have found this information about my grandparents. I would treasure it with my life. So print our autobiography questionnaire out today and start pondering and answering those questions!

HOW TO RESEARCH YOUR FAMILY TREE

Many people consider researching their family tree but are put off by the misplaced perception of how daunting such a task might be. The key, however, is to start small: collect important information from as many sources as possible; take your time; and take advantage of all the modern tools now available for you to research and record the details of your ancestors’ lives. The aim is to find out more information about your family and where you come from – it should be an enjoyable process, not an arduous one. So, where to start?

1. Ask as many living relatives as possible about their family members.

People often reveal more than books and paper ever can, so be sure to extract as much information as possible from your grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts and family friends. It is here that you will find out information that you will not find in historical documents. The existence of illegitimate children or adopted children, for instance. These are the family skeletons that have never been written down and whose secrets may die with family members. The type of events which may change the entire direction of your inquiries and may be such that even a professional would not uncover them without being privy to the secrets circulating within the family.

2. Consider family heirlooms.

Ask relatives for family heirlooms, correspondence, photos or documents from the past. These can usually be found collecting dust somewhere – unused and unnoticed – but you would be surprised how much information these documents can reveal. If you can, sit down with your relatives to discuss the content of anything you find. People love to reminisce and documents may jog people’s memories about the past. One very important step is to identify where your family came from originally. This will help you to isolate your search to relevant geographical areas and to dismiss others from your search.

3. Start with births, deaths and marriages.

When commencing the task of putting together an individual’s basic biographical information, it is useful to start with the records of the person’s birth and death. In the UK, there are certain dates after which it was a legal requirement to register all births, marriages and deaths (England and Wales 1837, Scotland 1855, Ireland 1864). This means it is relatively straightforward to trace your relatives’ births, deaths and marriages after these dates. Prior to these dates, the task is less straightforward but still entirely possible.

4. Consolidate research at archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres.

If you are keen to get to the bottom of your family history, you will need to undertake more solid research in order to collect concrete proof of family links. To do this, you will need to frequent archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres. These offer vast amounts of information but sometimes the relevant information is difficult for a beginner to find. Fortunately, these treasure troves of information are stocked with experienced and helpful staff whose job it is to assist people just like you. Often, it is best to call in advance to ask for advice. They will also inform you whether you will need any identification to commence your research.

5. Try genealogical research websites to expand upon what you already know about your family tree.

Websites such as Ancestry.com have powerful software that, based on the information that you provide, trawl through historical records to suggest the details of people you may be related to. Starting with just a small range of information about your immediate family is often sufficient to begin the process of revealing dozens of ancestors you previously knew nothing about. Click here to start your Free Family Tree at Ancestry.com.

6. Write your ancestors’ biographies.

Once you have uncovered some background information about your ancestors and your family tree, collaborate with family members and friends to record what you know about the various relatives in your family tree. The Family Tree function on The Biography Site allows you to collaborate with relatives and friends to write your ancestors’ biographies posthumously, and link those biographies to your own and those of your living relatives in an interactive tree.

And finally…

Don’t forget to write all about what you find in your own memoirs!