Many years ago, Oprah Winfrey conducted a survey in which she asked participants what they felt was the most important thing to them and they overwhelmingly responded, “To matter.” That may not necessarily be measurable in scientific terms, but it may entail providing value, benefit, and improvement to the world, to make tracks in the snow that indicate you were once here. One of the ways to both examine your life and leave evidence of it is through the author-written autobiography.
“An autobiography provides a unique outlook that helps to establish a family identity, a foundation that can influence the members of that family for ages to come,” explains Patricia Ann Case in her book, “How to Write your Autobiography: Preserving your Family Heritage” (Woodbridge Press Publishing Company, 1989, p. 10).
“As the form of writing favored by African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, autobiography carries forward a rich tradition of self-affirmation through finding one’s voice,” Tristine Rainer points out in her book, “Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997, p. 11). “It is a way of saying ‘I matter. This life I have lived has meaning. And because I tell it from my perspective, because I frame it, it has the meaning I give it.'”
The work can offer innumerable benefits. It enables the author to identify the foundation his own life stands on and how it molded him. It may enable him to include those who preceded him and illustrate the differences between their own, earlier-generation lives and his. It may facilitate the examination of their beliefs, values, and philosophies, all of which may have subtly shaped him. And subsequently, it can serve as a mirror into his past for his own children.
Like a quilt knitted together by the events and milestones of his life and the people who were instrumental in it, it can enable both them and himself to determine the pattern or patterns to it.
Within these stitches may be some hidden meaning or significance he himself may never have seen if he had not undertaken the project.
Structured in expository, creative nonfiction, or story arc literary form, it can reveal a value greater than the sum of its parts, which themselves can encompass talents, passions, obsessions, yearnings, desires, and dreams. All may have shaped him, providing the motivating core which enabled him to complete his earthly purpose.
Noted recovery specialist, the late John Bradshaw, may have summed this up when he said, “I am me and for this alone I came.” This may be the ultimate way a person “matters.”
While his readers may discover aspects about him as a person and the journey he undertook, the autobiographer himself can do the same as the words he captures allow him to assign meaning to them.
As one autobiographer explained, “… I am full of anticipation for my journey into the unknown. I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas which contain hidden meaning that it is up to me to discover. I am the artist of my life who takes the raw material given, no matter how bizarre, painful, or disappointing, and gives them shape and meaning. I am within each scene and each chapter of my life, defining my characters through the choices I make. I am on my side, rooting for myself, acting for myself.” (Rainer, ibid, p. 18)
This article subdivides your life into the seven stages of “Family Foundation,” “Your Arrival,” Childhood,” Teenage Years,” “Adulthood,” “Middle Years,” and “Retirement.” The process facilitates the researching, considering, and writing about the significant aspects which occurred in each.
Remembering, researching, sorting out, and then actually writing about a person’s life, which assuredly is characterized by an incalculable number of experiences and relationships, along with the feelings, emotions, and conclusions they generated, can prove a daunting task, especially with advancing age. Where, the autobiographer may ask himself, do I even begin? Like any monumental endeavor, it can become more manageable by subdividing it into parts or sections-in this case, life stages-and then focusing on that particular one before moving to the next. Even after it has been captured in written form, it can always be amended or edited later, if supplementary memories dictate the need. A journal or diary provides an excellent reference source for the project.
While the autobiographer may be unable to resist the temptation to pull out a piece of paper and write, “I was born on… ,” his patience may prove prudent.
Imagine, instead, a live theater you enter. You present your ticket, are handed a playbill, are shown to your seat, and you sit down, surveying the set on the stage. The actors have not yet appeared, but their world already exists, awaiting their arrival. Your world may have begun with your birth, but the world, like the theater’s set, existed before you, and your own setting was probably instrumental in what shaped you in terms of where you lived, who your parents were, what languages they spoke, and how their own pasts, beliefs, strengths, distortions, and weaknesses molded you into what you ultimately became. Your autobiography, in no small way, will enable you to examine that.
“We all come from the past and children ought to know what it was that went into their making,” Pulitzer prize-winning author Russell Baker once wrote.
If your parents shaped you, they were shaped by their own. You may wish to examine how your grandparents left a mark that you later bore. Consider the following autobiography passage.
My grandfather’s strong work ethic was clearly emblazoned in my father, as if it were a blood type that coursed through his veins and pumped him into action. Anyone who rose later than 6:30 a.m. he considered lazy. Work was almost “play” for him and he “played” six days a week. Snowstorms enabled him to show who the boss was and he always conquered them, walking into the plant where he worked earlier than his real bosses. Someday he would rub this ethic off on me, but I knew that if I resisted, it would have been more like a collision.
Other early-stage aspects worth exploring are location (country, city, or rural environment), home (farm, tenement, apartment, house, yurt, or palace), and historic period (World War II, the Great Depression, the Cold War, or the technology age). All shaped you, sometimes in subtle ways.
“As you begin writing about your life, don’t get yourself born’ yet,” advises May Borg in her book, “Writing your Life: An Easy to Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography” (Cottonwood Press, Inc., 1998, p. 26). “Instead, set the scene for your arrival, telling what you know about your family and your ancestors.”
Although your birth signals your official entry into the world and places you in your initial home environment a matters of days later, it may require some time before sufficient development permitted the self-processing and subsequent remembering of it. Therefore, you should begin with the fundamentals-that is, when and where you were born, your name and any associations it has, and milestones, such as your first birthday and first Christmas. Only sources like your parents and baby books can aid these tasks.
You may wish to explore any recollections of meeting and getting acquainted with your parents, primary caregivers, grandparents, and any siblings. Where were you in age order?
Aside from caregiver acquaintances, do you recall any feelings and energy, positive or negative, you associated with them? What was the atmosphere of your home environment: stable, loving, nurturing, supportive, chaotic, insecure, angry, or abandoning, and did it vary according to which parent was present?
What type of stories did your parents tell you about themselves and their pasts?
As you crossed the threshold from age two to three, did any interests begin to reveal themselves that became the initial indicators of later-in-life choices, capabilities, or even careers? Were you social or did you prefer to remain creatively alone? What type of toys served as your favorites: artistic types, such as painting materials, games that required others, building-oriented implements, like plastic tools and blocks, dolls, or homemaker items, such as dollhouses and easy-bake ovens?
How could you characterize yourself? Were you inquisitive, curious, eager to learn, passive, disinterested, or quickly-bored?
Later in life, I was always fascinated with those in search of answers to mysteries-Egyptologists and their studies of the pyramids of Giza, archaeologists who unearthed past civilizations, and explorers who located buried treasure. When I was three, I explored my own world-my house-rummaging through every drawer and closet when my mother wasn’t looking for my own buried treasure.
Was there any discrepancy about what others said about you and how you really were as a person in terms of beliefs and perceptions?
Did you play any family roles, such as hero, caregiver, mascot, shadow, and jokester? How was your relationship with your siblings-loving, cooperative, competitive, clashing, or resentful?
Which parent was most influential, positively or negatively, in your nurture and the encouragement of your early interests and dreams? Which one supported and which one, if any, squashed them?
Was there anyone, other than a family member, who understood you better than anyone else and served as a kindred spirit to you? Was there anyone who gave you the emotional and spiritual support your primary caregivers could not?
With this section, as with all others, you may wish to decide whether your approach is present-that is, an adult looking back at his early years-or past, as the child penning his memories at the time they occurred. What is more important, however, is how your early years affected you as a child and how they shaped your development as an adult.
A child subconsciously believes that his home environment and the parents or primary caregivers who created it are representatives of the world at large, since he knows no other than his own. You may wish to explore what its general atmosphere was like. What were your allowances and what were your restrictions?
What type of child were you-compliant, obedient, comical, a meddler, defiant, or a troublemaker? Who disciplined you? Did you upset the rowboat or calm the waters when others did?
Who was your best friend? What types of activities or toys did you share? Were you an early leader or an early follower?
Recount a typical day at five, seven, nine, and eleven. What may have caused it to become atypical? You may wish to consider holiday occasions and any summer vacations.
Do you have any secrets you never revealed about yourself? Were there any family secrets?
School is undoubtedly the center of any child’s life. What was yours like? Was it a single-story elementary type, a single-room school house in the Midwest, an inner city institution, or a progressive or specialized learning venue? Did you like it, love it, tolerate it, hate it? Were you academically inclined? Was there any subject for which you had a strong interest? Did it, like an intellectual weathervane, point to any talents or abilities that were later instrumental in your life? Did you participate in extracurricular activities, such as clubs or sports? Was there any teacher, friend, tutor, activity, or aspect that shaped and defined you at this life stage?
“As you write your memoir, keep in mind these two words: facts and anecdotes,” advises Borg (ibid, p. 55). “Facts will help your readers understand the basics-how people, places, and events shaped your life. Facts are very important, but it is anecdotes that will keep your readers interested and entertained. Think about the amusing, unusual, uncomfortable, triumphant, frightening, poignant, ridiculous, and radical moments of your life.”
Consider the following childhood memory.
As I propelled the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle one day when I was six-years-old, leaving my mother panting to keep up with my hot rod vehicle, it slipped and careened forward without a human brake, hitting the rear end of a woman. Embarrassed, I didn’t know what to say. But that embarrassment was mild when the woman turned to me, the one responsible for its launch, and I saw her face take the shape of my teacher’s, Mrs. McNulty. That’s because it was Mrs. McNulty!
Oh, God, I thought, I didn’t know what to say and wished my mother would hurry up and rescue me.
“Why, Mrs. McNulty,” I finally said through a stammer. “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.”
Rubbing her rear end, she said, “Why, Jeffery, it was you who launched that missile?”
“Ah, yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“And why do you think I shouldn’t be here?”
“Ah,” swallowing, I said, “because you’re a teacher. This is a supermarket. You’re supposed to be in a school. You come with the building, don’t you?”
“No,” she said slowly, shaking her head and making me feel as if she were about to teach an off-premises class. “I’m a person like you. I live in a house and shop in a store.”
“Oh,” I said, now embarrassed about my childhood misconception. “I didn’t know that.”
“What happened?” my mother said, arriving at the scene of the accident.
“Nothing,” said my teacher. “Your son obviously has an early interest in speed.”
I learned that my teacher-and-school association was the only one I had had of Mrs. McNulty that day and that teachers were people who did everything my parents did: work, sleep, shop, and live in a house. I wondered why she hadn’t taught me that in class. But, in retrospect, she just did and that, even when she wasn’t in the school building, she was still a teacher at heart.
Crossing that teenage bridge from your childhood thirteen to your adulthood eighteen is awkward and sometimes painful, as you leave behind what you were and journey to what you will become, perhaps realizing for the first time that you even were something at all. Like the proverbial square peg, you no longer fit in the old round hole, but have not yet defined what the new one is.
This period is characterized by physical, emotional, mental, neurological, and psychological changes, and images, interests, and clothes that no longer fit.
With whom did you identify at this age? Was there a role model who most influenced you? How quickly did you grow in height? Were there new-found academic interests and abilities? Did hormonal changes and partner attractions derail your studies?
Was there a defining person, incident, or experience that cemented your change? Did you lose childhood friends and adopt teenage ones? How did your home life change, if at all? Did your relationships with your parents and siblings take new forms?
Did career paths begin to define themselves? How did early love interests change or redefine you?
As you transitioned to early adulthood, perhaps learning to drive and applying to colleges, did you feel you were ready for these changes or did your upbringing hinder the process?
Did you experience any home abuse, school bullying, rejection? Into what category did you fit: the studious nerd, the goof-offs who felt they would never make anything of themselves, the directionless, the jocks? Did you assume any early employment, regardless of how menial it may have been?
“Autobiographic narrative is more than remembering on paper,” Rainer points out (op. cit., p. 192). “It is a second chance, a chance to get it right. Not that you change events, not that you don’t write about helplessly watching your sister drown with all the pain and guilt you experienced, but that this time you are on your own side, even in pain and failure. Now you can tell the story with insight and find the meaning with the single experience within the context of your whole life. Remembering one’s suffering from the perspective of acquired wisdom is different than simply replaying it.”
Here is a teenage year autobiography incident.
I found it more difficult than I thought when I started dating. Although it was awkward, I couldn’t necessarily connect with the girl with the same ease my friends seemed to. I tried different strategies and different girls. Many times I just went through the motions.
I really liked the girls, but there seemed to be a barrier between us. After a few dates, I couldn’t help the fact that I always found some sort of conflict, something we couldn’t agree on. In fact, there seemed to be no end to the reasons I couldn’t agree with her, as if it were somehow natural to me.
Later in life, I realized that my parents, who frequently fought about the smallest things at home, had modeled relationships for me-and I couldn’t relate to anyone unless I myself found some point of disagreement or argument. I never knew how much they had primed my brain for expected conflict and, if it failed to materialize, I created it myself, looking for anything to disagree about. I finally realized how influential my parent’s interactions were on me as I tried to become an adult.
Adulthood may not necessarily be measurable in age, since emotional development can vary it; nevertheless, in concrete terms, it may begin when the person either graduates high school or college, and it certainly constitutes the greatest percentage of his life.
When, specifically, did it begin for you? When did you feel ready to embrace this life stage and did it or did it not coincide with your physical departure from your home-of-origin? Was this leave something you were ready for and therefore considered a logical transition or an escape? What were the circumstances that led to it: the need to be independent, to travel, to perform military service, to seek employment? Aside from your belongings, which values and beliefs did you take? What did you miss or not miss when you finally left?
Poised on the threshold of the world, what were your hopes, dreams, and aspirations about it? Did your upbringing support or suppress them?
Describe your university years-your course of study, experiences, friends, and interactions, and how they led to personal growth and prepared you for a career.
Discuss your first and any subsequent jobs. Were they logical progressions of your degree studies or did they branch into never expected fields? Where did you work? What were the required credentials and were there any employment-related training programs? Did you need any special skills to perform your function?
How fulfilling was it, over and above the monetary compensation? Did the job define you or did you define the job? Did you accomplish something significant through it? Did you receive any citations or awards for it? How did it contribute to your personal growth and either an in-company advancement or a new company position?
Integral to most lives are the inevitable love and marriage aspects. You may wish to discuss your dating life, how you met “the right one,” your courtship, wedding, and your new life together. Was it smooth or bumpy? Why? What was the relationship like? Who was really in charge or was it an equal partnership?
Were there any subsequent marriages?
Here is an example of a person meeting his intended spouse.
I don’t know if it was astronomy or religion-or maybe even both-that were the forces at work that day. But I do know that as I entered the lecture hall where my art history seminar was given, that the planets seemed to align and a power greater than me directed my attention to the girl in the third row, as if to say, “This is the one for you.” With cascades of chestnut hair, green eyes, and a personality that could have been a carbon copy of mine, she, I knew, was right for me by an intelligence that was superior to my own.
I sat next to her and she began speaking to me, as if she had been waiting for me to enter the room, as if she was being directed by the same force. I knew, right then and there, that I was speaking to my future wife.
Did you have any children and what led to your decision to do so?
“Babies are necessary to grown-ups,” according to Eda Le Shan. “A new baby is like the beginning of all things-wonder, hope, or dream of possibilities.”
What role did parenthood play in your life? Can you trace your parenting style to that modeled by your own parents? Was it deficient, dysfunctional, or exemplary?
How compatible was it to your spouse’s?
What were your most rewarding, proud, confusing, or terrifying moments as a parent? If you had more than one child, what was his relationship to the others? How did you deal with infractions, punishment, conflict, and rewards? How similar or dissimilar was one child to the other?
How many of your beliefs, philosophies, and values do you feel you instilled in your children and what were they? Illustrate them. How did each of them add to your life and what, as a parent, did you learn from the process?
Finally, there may have been a darker side to either your marriage or to your adulthood. Truth, as has often been said, will set you free by opening the doors behind which it may have been hidden. If you wish to relate a full and honest story in your autobiography, this may be the opportunity to do so, enabling you to reveal the family secrets of dishonesty, alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, and incest, among others. Were these secrets unique to your own adult life or were they unresolved continuations from your childhood one? How did they are shape or misshape you?
“… There is more and more evidence that secrets in a family have long-standing effects, even through future generations,” wrote Borg (op. cit., p. 90). “Incest, spouse abuse, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, and depression all trend to reappear in families, generation after generation. In fact, some psychologists believe that families that don’t acknowledge and deal with their secrets are doomed to repeat them.”
Because of scientific and medical advancements, the current generation has a longer life expectancy than the previous one. Nevertheless, middle age begins at about forty for most. While you once crossed the bridge from child- to adulthood, you now subconsciously traverse another, from your core career and family life stage to that of your retirement and golden years. Somewhere between the two, you have not yet ended one period, but have not reached the other.
Because careers are now often redirected by company outsourcing and mergers and human-replacing technology, can you consider this period a midlife crisis or a midlife reinvention?
Aside from potential job losses, there are others in this period-that is, those of your parents, who pass, and those of your children, who vacate the nest to begin lives of their own. More importantly, how have you changed in terms of activities, philosophies, and goals as a result of this? How closely has your life adhered to your original vision of it? Have you achieved your dreams and accomplishments or have they gone askew?
Based upon your experience, have you adjusted the lens through which you view others, the world, and life in general?
How have you redefined the concepts of love, marriage, family, fairness, justice, equality, and purpose?
Provisioned with more monetary resources now that your children have left your house, have you done anything to begin a “second adulthood”-that is, travel, go back to school, learn new skills take up new hobbies, such as golf or painting, or write? How, if any, have you reinvented yourself?
Up until now, has your life been an adventure or an ordeal or somewhere in-between?
The following could be a middle-years entry into the author’s autobiography.
I thought that I had become too old to learn, but, after hesitating, I finally signed up for that sculpting class I had always thought about since I was a teenager. I was not only good at this form of artistic expression, and even made some new friends, but I realized that there’s positive energy in untapped desires, and that it never dies until you harness it, even almost four decades later. In retrospect, perhaps, that was the greatest lesson I learned: if the fires of passion still burn, you’re never too old to cook something with them.
Since no one is in a state of permanence or perfection in the physical world, your retirement years, which could begin between the ages of 60 and 70, may be marked by losses, particularly of your job, your loved ones, your independence, your health, and your physical and mental capabilities. While this period could be categorized as some type of end, it can also be a beginning-of reflection, as you look back at your life and examine its purpose, events, experiences, lessons, insights, accomplishments, loves, and fulfillments. What was its purpose and did you complete it?
How have you adjusted to the changes this phase has brought? What is your new lifestyle like?
Despite your losses, were there any gains or additions, such as newfound time and freedom to complete projects that may have been on hold for most of your life, like travel, spending more time with old friends, and playing with your grandchildren?
You may wish to write about the endeavors, successes, and qualities of your own grown children’s lives and how the foundation of confidence, esteem, belief, and even faith you laid during their upbringings was instrumental in it.
Is the term “senior citizen” a stigmatized obstacle or an opportunity for you?
Now that you have traveled a good portion of your life’s road, can you share any philosophies, truths, insights, or wisdoms concerning it? How much were you able to remain loyal to the real you and how much did others dictate who you should have been?
“Your work continues within you… for not only do you write it, it rewrites you,” advises Rainer (op. cit., p. 325). “The unconscious story that has driven your life is now made conscious… You discover your true self behind your masks and henceforth are fierce with realty… You see yourself as the protagonist of your life, and you know it is the choices that determine your character, your values, and your story.”
If you compare the journey of life to the physical one, you may realize that the path paved by decisions, choices, actions, and interactions enabled you to travel from your origin to your destination, and that all shaped who you were and who you ultimately became.
“It is not the job of future generations to make sense of our lives from the remnants of the marketplace, scrap snapshots, refurbished heirlooms, electronic bits of bits,” concludes Rainer (ibid, p. 326). “Only we can make it a story of self, a story with the power of myth, to leave somewhere the best of what we were and what we learned.”
Nothing could be more instrumental in this process than the self-written autobiography.
Borg, Mary. “Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography.” Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 1998.
Case, Patricia Ann. “How to Write Your Autobiography: Preserving Your Family Heritage.” Santa Barbara, California: Woodbridge Press Publishing Company, 1989.
Rainer, Tristine. “Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography”. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997.