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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

  • Staff Reviews

"Chee takes on the impulse toward autobiography in fiction, and closely examines his own—he freely admits that his first novel, Edinburgh , was based on his own life. His writing is sharp and holds the kind of honesty achievable only through distance and introspection. These essays are like an ouroboros—a fitting metaphor, as ouroboros often symbolize the cycle of creation and destruction, and Chee writes from a place of never quite knowing what comes first."

See all my recommendations »

"Alexander Chee understands."

From the author of  The Queen of the Night , an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the  New York Times.  With  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,  his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.   How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel,  Edinburgh,  and the election of Donald Trump.   By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry,  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

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Lessons from a Life: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Latanya mcqueen.

  • May 30, 2018

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

Early on in Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel , Chee talks about the doodles he used to do when he was younger. Drawings for a staring eye, “the eye a perfect talisman for a boy who believed his watching both hid him and gave him power. Sometimes as I drew it, I was staring at myself,” he says. This is a perfect image to begin with because Chee is a watcher, an observer constantly on the outside looking in and developing an acute sensitivity that has enabled him to craft an earnest and moving essay collection about the relationship of art to one’s life and how they bleed into and influence one another.

The opening essay, “The Curse,” details Chee’s experiences as part of a high school exchange program where a group of American students live with host families in Chiapas, Mexico for the summer and take classes with the local students. However, unlike the Mexican students, they end up not having to take any classes. Chee uses the time to engross himself in stories (both in reading them and eventually writing his own). Writers and readers alike will find familiarity in this moment of turning to stories for something in life unfulfilled. In this particular essay, what’s unfulfilled is the desire to be seen and to be accepted for who he is—a gay, half white, half Korean American. In the essay Chee manages to pass, or “go native,” ending with Chee becoming ‘Alejandro from Tijuana” as part of a friendly bet to fool some of his host family’s friends during a wedding anniversary party. Chee manages to convince everyone of the deception, and he is able to pass largely because of his language fluency (thanks to his host family who refused to speak English to him again after the first night of his arrival), and in so doing, the essay calls attention to the artificial and arbitrary cultural boundaries that separate us. “The Curse,” then, becomes an essay about what it means to belong, and how sometimes others’ perceptions of whether you belong come from the way they see you. Chee is American, but in America, and in particular in Maine where he grew up, his identity is seen as “alien, or exotic, or somehow inhuman.” In America, he is made to feel he doesn’t belong because of how he looks, whereas in Mexico he is “only mestizo, ordinary at first glance.” Yet, as Chee points out by the end, this ultimately is a false sense of belonging. A bout of food poisoning reminds him that despite however much he’d passed, he was still an “imposter” who would never fully belong.

The second essay, “The Querent,” documents how Chee learned the Tarot. The origins of how Chee eventually came to the Tarot are interesting enough that they could have been their own essay (and as such I won’t reveal here), but they stem partly out of his love of stories (“much of what I love about literature is also what I love about the Tarot—archetypes at play, hidden forces, secrets brought to light”). Once again Chee is searching for something, only this time it is in whatever answers the Tarot can provide. Chee eventually becomes a professional Tarot reader and his insights on the profession are fascinating. Even within this essay, there are craft lessons to be given—Chee manages to imbue a craft lesson here about autobiographical writing. “We think this means this, and that means that,” Chee explains, “and in the meantime the true meaning is somewhere else, and the omen lies on the ground, face-down, as good as mute.” One must see outside of themselves with the appropriate distance, to be able to look at the events in one’s life with a level of detachment so as not to “cloud what is there with what you want to see.”

Not only are we told this lesson but Chee shows us this as well, because in the essay we get a glimpse of the first of several traumas that impact the course of his life. When Chee is barely a teenager his father gets severely injured in a car accident that leaves him paralyzed on one side of his body. Three years later his father dies from complications connected to his injuries. Echoes of the effect of these traumas permeate throughout as we move from Chee’s childhood to hearing about his experiences in college at Wesleyan University, his activism while living in San Francisco afterward, his life in graduate school, and then post-grad life while living in New York. Even though Chee writes about difficult subject matter, there’s enough emotional distance so that the essays never appear maudlin or overwrought. One could argue possibly that at times Chee is too distant in regards to some of the subject matter, but even here there is a reason for this—the distance mirrors Chee’s avoidance toward grappling with another trauma, one that happened to Chee as a boy and which takes the entire collection to be fully revealed. The effect then, once realized, is incredibly impactful, because by the end of the narrative we realize that much of this book is also about the process of healing from trauma that has in many ways shaped one’s life and one’s work.

Another essay of note is “After Peter,” a touching requiem written for painter and activist Peter D. Kelloran who died at the age of thirty-three from AIDS complications. Chee was, as he explains, a “minor character” in Peter’s overall story, but he is still able to create a heartfelt portrait of his life, composed through the collection of anecdotes from Peter’s friends as well as Chee’s own encounters, first seeing him when he visits the bookstore where Chee works and then later at subsequent protests with ACT UP, a collective of individuals involved in direct-action activism. The interactions we’re given between Peter and Chee feel like mere glimpses but still manage to be deeply affecting. Within the essay’s pages we get a scope of Peter’s life from those who knew him and it becomes an essay about the ripple one person’s life can have on another long after they are gone.

For those who’ve read any of Chee’s other books, the essays “The Writing Life,” “The Autobiography Of My Novel,” and “On Being An American Writer” will be of particular interest. These essays span his development and career as a writer which begin with him as an undergraduate taking a literary nonfiction class with Annie Dillard (which itself begins with a charming letter he’d written to her as part of his application) and follows his experiences completing his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and subsequent post-MFA life trying to forge a writing career while working various waiter positions (including for the infamous William R. and Pat Buckley), as well as how he eventually came to write and publish his novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night . Throughout these essays, as Chee relays anecdotes from his mentors and teachers, he generously shares with us the most important craft lessons imparted to him. We also are offered peeks inside his own writerly process as he talks about his struggles writing and publishing his first two novels. In addition to these essays, there are two interspersed second-person point of view list essays, “100 Things About Writing a Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” that read like writerly craft interludes. The experience of reading these pieces feels at times like being guided by a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.

About midway through the collection, in the essay “My Parade” detailing Chee’s time when he was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he relays an experience with a fellow classmate who during a critique of one of his pieces, asks why he should care of stories about “the lives of these bitchy queens.” “I will make you care,” Chee vows to himself in response. Personally, it is difficult not to flinch upon reading about such a moment and not be reminded of all the ways writers from marginalized groups have had to prove their stories matter, but also, in a field where the cards continually feel as if they are stacked against them ever succeeding, most writers will have a moment where they, too, wonder why they should continue. Why should we even care about our own writing? What is the point of it when it seems as if every day the world continues to crumble just a little bit more?

Chee’s last essay, “On Becoming An American Writer” seeks to answer this question. “How many times have I thought the world would end?” Chee posits before sharing his memory of the day the Twin Towers fell. Then, like now, writers were faced with a sense of futility in continuing on with their work. “What is the point?” one of Chee’s students asked, a question many of us have wondered once again. It is a question I myself have often asked, but the effect of reading Chee’s essays is to be reminded of why we write, but also, why we read, even in these times of never ending distress. You don’t know who you can affect, who will connect with your work, who you can urge to keep going despite whatever trauma or grief or pain. To read this book is to be reminded that this is what the best of literature can do. It is such a gift, and I am grateful.

LaTanya McQueen received her MFA from Emerson College, her PhD from the University of Missouri, was the 2017-2018 Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer Fellow at Cornell College, and in the fall will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at Coe College. Her essay collection, And It Begins Like This, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.

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Alexander Chee’s new essay collection is a searing examination of the costs of writing

The author of Queen of the Night and Edinburgh turns to essays in this achingly vulnerable collection.

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel , a new essay collection by Alexander Chee, is a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences.

Chee is no stranger to the kind of writing that leaves you aching. He’s the author of 2001’s Edinburgh and 2016’s Queen of the Night , and he tends to write the kind of rich, sprawling books that take years and years to put together — hence the decade-and-a-half-long gap between his two novels. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel works on a smaller scale, but it’s no less ambitious or moving.

Its essays cover Chee’s life: his time as a 15-year-old foreign exchange student in Mexico (where “when people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object”), his father’s death, his time in college and grad school, his time as a cater waiter working for the Buckleys, his time as a published novelist, and up through the 2016 election (“the election that for now we all speak of only as ‘the election,’ as if there will never be any other”). Much of the book delves into Chee’s struggles as a gay writer of color, but the heart of it comes toward the end, in a string of three essays built around the writing of Edinburgh .

The original plan, Chee writes, was for Edinburgh to be his easy book. He was desperate for cash after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and throwing together an easy, formulaic book seemed like the way forward. “I’m just going to write a shitty autobiographical first novel just like everyone else,” he decided, “and sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Instead, he spent five years writing a novel about his own trauma, layered with images borrowed from Japanese mythology and plot structure borrowed from operas. “I set about making up someone like me,” Chee writes, “but not like me.”

Edinburgh is about a boy soprano who is sexually abused by his choir director. And writing it, Chee concludes, “let me practice saying what I remembered out loud until the day I could remember all of it.” It created a space in which Chee could wrestle plainly with what happened to him.

But there’s a certain ambivalence in the catharsis Chee finds in How t o Write a n Autobiographical Novel . In the title essay, Chee warns, “Write fiction about your life and pay with your life, at least three times.” Writing Edinburgh meant destroying the version of himself that he presented to the world, to his closest friends and family, and creating a new self, one he’s not entirely sure is any more true than the last one.

And Chee is willing to immerse himself in this ambivalence, to explore fully how writing his autobiographical novel both wounded him and healed him. And what he concludes is that the project of writing holds immense value. “All my life I’ve been told this isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that it could never matter,” Chee says. “And yet I think it does.”

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How to write an autobiography: 7 key steps

Many people who’ve lived interesting lives want to learn how to write an autobiography. Whether you want to write a memoir or a fictional autobiography, these 7 steps will help you start:

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 4 Comments on How to write an autobiography: 7 key steps

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

What is autobiography?

Autobiography means to write about yourself, typically the account of significant events in your life. The word stems from the Greek, αὐτός (autos) meaning self , plus βίος (bios) meaning life and γράφειν ( graphein ) – to write.

Autobiography vs memoir: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir? Are there specific kinds of autobiography? These may be questions you ask as you set out to write your life story.

As Ian Jack writes in The Guardian , there are differences between autobiography vs memoir although the terms are often used interchangeably:

An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. All kinds of people, more or less famous, can write them or be helped to write them: footballers, politicians, newsreaders. Deeds, fame and an interesting life are not necessary ingredients of the memoir. The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good. Ian Jack, in The Guardian , February 2003.

7 steps to write your own life story:

  • Brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope
  • Skim autobiographies for inspiration
  • Choose between autobiography and memoir
  • Outline key and illustrative life events
  • Draft key scenes from your life
  • Find strong transitions
  • Check details and get beta readers

1. Brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope

Deciding what period and events you’ll cover in your life story is a helpful first step in choosing how to write an autobiography.

Squishing the intrigues, heartbreaks, surprises and secrets of your life into narrative form may seem an impossible task. Life of course does not unfold in neat paragraphs, scenes and chapters.

Make it easier and brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope. Ask:

  • What period of my life do I want to tell readers about?
  • Where should the timeline start? (Infancy? Childhood? Adolescence?)
  • What are key events of my life readers may find intriguing?

This will help you refine your autobiography’s focus [you can also pinpoint your story’s focus in the Central Idea brainstorming tool in the Now Novel dashboard].

For deciding your story’s scope, ask:

  • What essential scenes and events should I include?
  • What themes or subjects need mention (for example, if you have experienced a trauma or illness that has greatly impacted your life, exploring personal events and insights that resulted from them would make sense)

Autobiography Exercise: Scenes to show

Write a brief bullet list of events to include in your autobiography or memoir.

Focus on events that show strong emotion, key turning points or changes, or vivid life lessons , because these connect with readers.

For example:

  • A first encounter with someone who turned out to be an amazing mentor
  • A positive or challenging move to another school, city or country in childhood
  • The first time you met a major love interest in your life
  • The moment you walked away from a job or other commitment to pursue a new dream

How to write an autobiography - infographic | Now Novel

2. Skim autobiographies for inspiration

One of the best ways to learn how to write an autobiography is, of course, to read published examples.

Get hold of copies of autobiographies that interest you . Skim parts such as the beginning and end, chapter beginnings and endings. Read for details that leap out at you, grab your attention.

Take notes on how the author approaches telling their life story. Do they:

  • Proceed chronologically from childhood to adulthood or play with time and memories?
  • Start with a dramatic, life-changing incident or lead in slowly?
  • Tell the reader what they’re going to cover or leave the reader to gradually discover the narrative structure or shape of the story?

Reading autobiography and note-taking in this way helps you see the options for how to structure your narrative.

3. Choose between autobiography and memoir

Reading autobiography examples will help you see how authors use common narrative elements.

For example, the acclaimed author Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited :

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. […] I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory : An Autobiography Revisted (1967), 17.

Nabokov, in typically ornate fashion, breaks the ‘rules’ of autobiography. He uses third person to describe a ‘ young chronophobiac’ – one who is afraid of time. We can guess this ‘young chronophobiac’ is Nabokov himself, and that he is using a tone of ironic detachment to imply that the act of dredging through memories – or even the idea of time itself – fills him with ‘something like panic’.

The above seems more like a literary play with form (an attribute Ian Jack ascribes memoir) than a straightforward, chronological autobiography.

Readers might indeed wonder why Nabokov calls Speak, Memory an autobiography.

Nabokov does, however, proceed more or less chronologically, from before his birth, to Chapter 2 which begins:

It was the primordial cave (and not what Freudian mystics might suppose) that lay behind the games I played when I was four. Nabokov, Speak, Memory , p. 20.

Thus Nabokov blends elements of memoir. He blends illustrative snapshots of life (the part illuminating the whole) with key events (birth, childhood) typical of autobiographical narration.

Thinking about how you’ll structure your life story , however, will make it more purposeful and consistent.

Jump to Top

4. Outline key and illustrative life events

In deciding how to write an autobiography, there are two types of events to include:

  • Key events – Crucial, formative experiences, for example an early childhood triumph or loss that shaped your view of the world.
  • Illustrative events – Individual encounters, lessons, romances, teachers and mentors that provide texture, background, humour, drama or the other vital elements of storytelling .

Examples of key events and illustrative events in autobiography

As an example, Nabokov uses the games he would play as a child at the start of chapter two to illustrate how he came to value imagination and beauty . He describes making a couch tent:

I then had the fantastic pleasure of creeping through that pitch-dark tunnel, where I lingered a little to listen to the singing in my ears – that lonesome vibration so familiar to small boys in dusty hiding places – and then, in a burst of delicious panic, on rapidly thudding hands and knees I would reach the tunnel’s far end…’ Nabokov, Speak, Memory , p. 20.

This is an example of illustrative event: a scene in autobiography that reveals something about the author.

In this case, we see Nabokov’s love of games of imagination and sensory stimulation (something one finds abundant in his fiction).

An example of a key event would be a major relocation, a historical conflict (such as war), or another key turning point. For example, Nabokov describes the effects of the Russo-Japanese War (a key event) in 1905 on the family unit:

The close of Russia’s disastrous campaign in the Far East was accompanied by furious internal disorders. Undaunted by them, my mother, with her three children, returned to St. Petersburg after almost a year of foreign resorts. Nabokov, Speak, Memory , p. 24.

Autobiography exercise: Finding key and illustrative events

Write a bullet list each of key and illustrative events – a sentence describing each. Examples:

  • The year my family moved from Country A to Country B
  • The first time I held a violin in my hands
  • The first close friendship I ever made at school

Illustrative Events

  • The experience and emotion of boarding a plane for the first time
  • A specific funny or insightful violin lesson or teacher
  • A day with a close school friend that left an indelible impression

Autobiography and art - Fellini quote | Now Novel

5. Draft key scenes from your life

Now that you have ideas for key and illustrative events in your life, expand on an example.

Use the techniques of fiction to enrich the scene.

For example, Nabokov describes his sensory impressions behind the family couch.

  • Impressions of sound, smell, touch, taste or specific visual details
  • Emotions (Nabokov conveys a palpable sense of the child’s simultaneous delight in secrecy and panic in the dark when he describes crawling through the tunnel he made using the family couch)

As you draft, keep this in mind: What do I want to tell, show, teach? How will this help, entertain, surprise, amuse my reader?

6. Find strong transitions

Learning how to write an autobiography is not that different from learning how to write fiction.

For one, autobiographical writing and fiction writing both need engaging introductions, transitions, exposition and development.

An advantage of memoir and autobiography is that transition is a shared, relatable part of life.

For example, most children in countries where school attendance is required by law will leave the family unit and go out into the world at a similar age.

These key life changes are useful places in a memoir or autobiography for chapter breaks or scene transitions . Nabokov, for example, uses the family move to St Petersburg at the start of Chapter 4 to transition into describing his first teacher, a natural early childhood memory to include:

With a sharp and merry blast from the whistle that was part of my first sailor suit, my childhood calls me back into that distant past to have me shake hands again with my delightful teacher. Vasiliy Martinovich Zhernosekov had a fuzzy brown beard, a balding head, and china-blue eyes, one of which bore a fascinating excrescence on the upper lid. Nabokob, Speak, Memory , p. 24.

Note how Nabokov signals the narrative transition – by describing a sound he associates with that period of his life. It’s a vivid, descriptive way to end one section of story and begin another.

7. Check details and get beta readers

As you write an autobiography or memoir, it’s often helpful to speak to family or old friends. Because you never know who may remember a funny, interesting or surprising detail about a time you are remembering and trying to capture.

The people who know you best may be your best beta readers when you write about yourself. It’s also good etiquette, if writing about a family member or friend who is still living, to run sections concerning them past them.

Need someone to read over your autobiography so far? Get help from a skilled editor. Jump to Top

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  • How to write a book and get it published in 10 steps
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how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

4 replies on “How to write an autobiography: 7 key steps”

Just starting to write a family history beginning with what I know about my immigrant grandparents, then with a follow-up through moves and my childhood.

Hi Peter, that sounds a wonderful use of family history. I hope it is going well.

Very helpful.

Glad you found it helpful, Sally. Thanks for writing in.

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

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Alexander Chee reads an excerpt from his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel , published by Mariner Books in April.  The Autobiography of My Novel

The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned. This is what fiction can do—​I think it is even what fiction is for. But learning this was still ahead of me. I knew what I thought was normal for a first novel, but every first novel is the answer to the question of what is normal for a first novel. Mine came to me in pieces at first, as if it were once whole and someone had broken it and scattered it inside me, hiding until it was safe for it to be put back together. In the time before I understood that I was writing this novel, each time a piece of it emerged, I felt as if I’d received a strange valentine from a part of me that had a very different relationship to language than the me that walked around, had coffee with friends, and hoped for the best out of every day. The words felt both old and new, and the things they described were more real to me when I reread them than the things my previous sentences had tried to collect inside them. And so while I wrote this novel, it didn’t feel like I could say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both like an autonomic process, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice. 

Prior to this, my sentences were often criticized in writing workshops for being only beautiful, and lacking meaning. I felt I understood what they meant, and worked to correct it, but didn’t really think about what this meant until the novel was done. I’d once organized my life, my conversation, even my sentences, in such a way as to never say what I was now trying to write. I had avoided the story for years with all the force I could bring to bear—intellectual, emotional, physical. Imagine a child’s teeth after wearing a gag for thirteen years. That is what my sentences were like then, pushed in around the shape of a story I did not want to tell, but pointing all the same to what was there. I have a theory of the first novel now, that it is something that makes the writer, even as the writer makes the novel. That it must be something you care about enough to see through to the end. I tell my students all the time: writing fiction is an exercise in giving a shit—​an exercise in finding out what you really care about. Many student writers become obsessed with aesthetics, but I find that is usually a way to avoid whatever it is they have to say. My first novel was not the first one I started. It was the first one I finished. Looking at my records, I count three previous unfinished novels; pieces of one of them went into this first one. But the one I finished, I finished because I asked myself a question. What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know? Excerpted from  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  by Alexander Chee. Copyright © Alexander Chee, 2018. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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Home » Blog » How to Write an Autobiography in 31 Steps

How to Write an Autobiography in 31 Steps

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf


If you’re thinking about writing an autobiography, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will be telling you all about how to write an autobiography – breaking it down and helping you along with the process.

1. What is an Autobiography?

So you want to know how to write an autobiography? First off, let’s start with what an autobiography is. Put simply, a biography is a book written about someone’s life. It includes all elements of their life, particularly featuring any significant events that took place.

The word ‘autobiography’ is made up of the two Greek words ‘autos’ and ‘bios’, meaning self and life. Put them together and you get a book that is a mix of who you are, and the life you have lived.

2. Memoir vs. Autobiography

Before you start any kind of writing process, it is important to know what kind of a book it is you are wanting to write. There is no way to know how to write an autobiography if you can’t distinguish the two. Memoir and autobiography are often plumped into the same genre, because they are both about someone’s life.

But they are two genres of their own. So here’s the difference:

It’s pretty simple – if the book is about the person’s entire life – it’s an autobiography; if it’s about one or two events, themes or memories within their life, it’s a memoir .

Knowing the difference will save you time and energy. It will also help you to shape and plan your book (if that’s your style).

You can always change your mind and switch genres, but at least you will know what you are doing and how both of them work. Whichever you choose will change a lot about your book – particularly the content you choose to include and the structure of the entire piece.

Memoir is the perfect platform to share your personal life experience, and you don’t have to share every other significant moment of your life. (A wise decision if only one really interesting thing has happened to you during your lifetime.)

Writing an autobiography is much different. While they are both to do with the author’s life, biography is more to do with what happened throughout your life.

That means all significant events from birth ’till now.

If you set out to write a biography and it turns into a memoir, this is not a problem. The problem is when you don’t know what you’re doing at all. This leads to confusion in the writing process. And a lack of professionalism outside of it.

A great way to learn how to write an autobiography is to read. A lot. Reading other autobiographies will give you an idea of which direction to go in and how this genre is structured. It can also help you to develop your style and tone of voice, and to pinpoint which writing techniques you find most effective. All good tools to have in your writing toolbox.

Here are a few examples of autobiographies you might want to read:

  • My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin (1964)
  • The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin
  • Long walk to freedom, Nelson Mandela
  • The story of my experiments with truth, Mahatma Gandhi
  • The story of my life, Helen Keller
  • The autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Malcolm X
  • An Autobiography, Agatha Christie (1965))
  • The confessions of St. Augustine, Augustine of Hippo
  • Scar tissue, Anthony Kiedis, Larry Sloman
  • Open: An Autobiography, Andre Agassi
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Autobiography of a yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda

4. When to Write an Autobiography

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

Cellini (1500-1571) wrote one of the finest autobiographies of the renaissance. He stated:

“No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty.” Cellini

Knowing how to write an autobiography can have a lot to do with your life experiences. This fact brings into question the age of the reader.

Many biographies are written later on in life, when experience has been gathered and there are many exciting moments to draw from. But this isn’t always the case.

If you are a younger writer and feel that your life has been sufficiently fantastic, or you feel a growing desire to get down all of the details of your childhood days, there is no rule that says you can’t. So don’t let others’ perceptions stop you.

Twenty-one-year-old Edouard Louis, for example, published a hugely successful fictional autobiography (aka an autofiction), The end of Eddy about his childhood and adolescence. So it is possible. Sorry Cellini.

That said, an older, more experienced writer may have an easier time writing an autobiography, simply because they have more material to draw from.

Like memoir, autobiographies tend to center around a theme, even though you are including many life events. That is because people tend to also be themed, in a way. Want to know how to start an autobiography? Thinking about theme can be a useful way in.

If you are a professional dancer, and that is the passion of your life, it makes sense that your book would also center around the theme of dancing and how you reached that success.

If you are ghostwriting for a celebrity, naturally they will be famous for something in particular.

The main theme, of course, is the person’s life. But that is not enough to sustain interest across time. So bear in mind a secondary theme that ties it all together.

If your theme or themes are relatable, then that will stand you in good stead. If you are not writing a glitzy celeb autobiography, then having a very relatable and original theme is more likely to find a readership than any other. Be careful not to choose and manufacture your theme, however. If you are meant to write an autobiography, you will likely already feel compelled to write about your life. So try not to put too much thought into it. Just keep it in mind, as it will keep you on track.

6. How to Pick a Theme

How to start an autobiography? One way is to pick a theme. And stick to it.

One way of picking a theme is to choose an aspect of your personality that you feel is awesome and make that your sole focus. Maybe you’re great at maths, for example. Perhaps you made it to the world championships on mathematics or something. That would be a story worth telling.

Another is to look at your philosophy in life and make that the focal point of your book. Showing your values throughout the book can inspire and uplift the reader as it can show a good example of a life well-lived. It also reveals quite clearly who you are as a person, without you having to explicitly spell it out.

A third would be to consider the things that are most important to you in your life and to make a reference to these as you work your way through each significant event mentioned in your book. (This works especially well if you are writing an autobiography for those who know you.)

7. Exceptions

You might also be wanting to know how to write an autobiography, because you want to share your story with your family. This is an admirable reason to write a story. It means that your family will always have a special connection to you through story, no matter what. It also means that generations to come will have that link to their own past and history.

From that sense, everybody should write one!

This kind of story can even be compiled as an oral history of your families’ history and lives, which makes for an extremely personal keepsake.

Autobiographies are sometimes written in short form, as essays for college assignments. This is a similar exercise to writing a full book , but in a condensed format.

Another form of autobiography is as an autofiction. This book is based mostly upon autobiographical content, but is also a work of fiction. This is an easy way of avoiding any concerns you might have about privacy. If you are wanting to distance yourself a little and take more control over the content, then this may be the way to go.

You can also consider other formats, such as writing an autobiographical graphic novel, which has the essence of cool written all over it. If you are an artist or have a passion for strong visuals, this is something to consider.

8. How to Plan

“Look for the times when your life changed the most, and when you changed the most, those are the times of peak drama in your life.” Janice Erlbaum, The Autobiographer’s Handbook

An excellent practice when learning how to start an autobiography, is to begin by writing out all of the significant events in your life. These could be anything; from graduating college, to losing your virginity, to being born. Whatever you think is most important and noteworthy, write it down.

You can later play with the order of events if you like, to shake things up a little bit,  but for now, just get anything and everything you can think of written down.

When considering how to write an autobiography, it seems to be the most natural of all genres to plan. This is because within it’s very construction there is a presumption of what it will be about: events in your life. From this sense, it is already set up for you. In some ways, this makes writing a lot easier. On the other hand, the risk that easy planning poses, is boredom. For the reader or yourself. The challenge then becomes, how to make these life events interesting and stand out. But we’ll get to that a bit later on…

Nb If you are a pantser (someone who likes to write by the seat of your pants) then you might want to skip this step. In all likelihood you have something in mind to write about, so just start there.

9. Writing Schedule

A schedule helps you to get things done. You will know what works best for you after trying a few things out. You could try planning out how much you are going to write by the hour (i.e. I will write for an hour a day, every weekday) or by word count (I will write 500 words a day). Be realistic and don’t overwhelm yourself. If you are too overambitious, you may find you end up not writing at all.

Otherwise, you could aim to write a certain section of the book per week or month if that works better for you. Because autobiography is so clearly and easily arranged into story beats (was born, had first pimple, dyed hair red etc.) organizing your writing by these events works for almost all writers, even if you are not a fan of planning.

Ask yourself the question, what’s the minimum I could manage on a regular basis? And be honest.

Everyone has their own writing style, including the way they schedule (or don’t schedule) their writing habits. So don’t ever let anyone tell you how you should be writing. It’s up to you.

10. How to Start an Autobiography

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

Well, now you have a list of important events in your life, starting to write should be pretty straight forward. If you don’t like planning, it’s even simpler, just pinpoint a significant moment in time and get to work! If you have a plan, all you need to do is start writing out a first draft of each event.

Next up we have a few tips and tricks to get you started.

11. Go Digging

While figuring out how to write an autobiography, you will want to have everything you are writing as fresh and vivid in your mind as possible. This clarity will translate onto the page and give your readers a strong impression of each moment.

To do this, you will be wanting to dig out any old photos of you and whomever you might be writing about, and begin filing things away for each chapter or section of the book.

You also might find it beneficial to interview anyone who remembers what happened. This can bring a new light on old events. Try using a recorder or dictaphone and typing up the best bits once you’re done.

12. Fill Up Your Senses

A good way to get into the moment before a writing session is to surround yourself with the materials relating to that particular event. Look at photos or listen to recordings from around that time, and jot down any thoughts you might have about them.

You may also want to listen to some music from the time. If you have any old clothes or keepsakes from the person, you will also want them to be around or near as you write. Listen to any interviews about the time or the characters before writing.

13. Write a letter

If you’re struggling to start writing, you can try writing a letter to yourself or to other members of the family from the time. This is a very personal way of connecting with the past. Remembering your connection to your characters will help your writing to flow more easily and mean you have material to draw from before you even start writing.

14. Emotions

Writing about certain life events is likely to be emotional. Say you had a car crash when you were younger, or had to deal with some maltreatment of some kind, this will impact your writing, and how you feel about it.

It can be a difficult balance. You need to care enough about your subject matter to write it. But you don’t want your emotions to take over to the point where style and the content of your book suffers.

While feeling impassioned by your writing, it is also important to be able to step back and take a second look at your viewpoint. This may take several rewrites to get right.

If you are finding it difficult, then consider writing out as many different viewpoints of the event as you possibly can. This will open up how you see it and may even lead to an inspiring revelation for both you and your book.

15. New Insights

One of the benefits of learning how to write an autobiography, is that, as you develop as a writer, new insights will likely occur.

So while emotions can run high, it is good to know that writing about anything difficult that has happened in your life can help you psychologically.

Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor at Austin Texas university discovered that students who wrote for just fifteen minutes a day over three days about difficult or emotional experiences had a better level of wellbeing. He found that going through the process was upsetting for them, but it was the new insights the students discovered through the process of writing, that led to their improved levels of psychological health.

16. Take Care

As with memoir, if you feel that it is too much to write any subject matter, always take a break and come back to it (or not). Your mental health and general wellbeing are always more important than a book.

17. Know Your Why

Make sure that you don’t add in topics or incidents simply to vent about them. Instead, get all your feelings out about it during your first draft, and then start with a fresh perspective. If your writing is only about venting, it will not interest the reader. You may come across as petty or whiny.

Instead, you will want to make sure you can see the benefit of sharing your experiences with people. When you truly know how to write an autobiography, it should empower and enlighten people and help them connect to your story, rather than reading like an unfinished diary entry. It is perfectly acceptable for it to start out that way. But by the end of your writing process, you should be confident in the purpose of why you are writing your book, and what kind of impact it will have on its readers.

Knowing why you are writing will keep you on the right track, and help you like a compass in the storm, when you are lost.

18. Tone of Voice

An important aspect of telling your story will be your narrative style and tone of voice. This completely depends upon who you are writing for and the purpose of your book.

If you are writing for your grandchildren, for example, you may use more simplistic language. If you are writing for a broader audience, then you may use a more neutral tone. Writing for friends? You might want to use more familial or colloquial terms.

This also depends a lot on what kind of person you are, and you will want your attitude and personality to be reflected in your writing. This should happen naturally, but don’t be afraid to write as if you are talking or to use a recording device and write up your account of each chapter afterwards.

Pro tip: Relax. You won’t find your tone of voice by constantly thinking about how you might come across. Just write as you think and your natural expression will do the rest.

19. First or Third Person?

You can experiment with viewpoint as you go along, but once you have chosen, you will be wanting to stick with it. Third person gives us the feeling it has been written by someone else. So, if you are employing a ghostwriter or are working on a fictional work, then this is a good way to go.

First person is the generally accepted viewpoint for most autobiographies, because it is your story, and you are the one writing it.

20. Conflict

As you recall the people in your life, adding in any conflicts, even if they are comical, will add to the richness of the book. Conflict drives drama, intrigue and interest. And that’s what you want, if you want your book read, that is.

21. Story Arc

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

One of the most critical components of how to write an autobiography is story arc. Like most genres of story, autobiography is no exception and will need some sort of an all-encompassing story arc. This is one of the main challenges you may face while writing this kind of book.

It simply can’t be a long list of events and then an ending. They have to all meld together cohesively in order to have some sort of an impact on your reader.

A story arc gives writers a structure, in which our main character aims to do something, and then either manages (or doesn’t) to achieve it. There are normally many obstacles in the protagonist’s way, and they must overcome them. Simply put, our main character must get from A to B. And you will need to decide at some point, what your start and end points in the story will be.

This ties into your overall message in the book. The great thing about autobiography is that it basically tells your reader who you are as a person.

You can start by making a note of your core beliefs and who you feel you are as a person before you begin. But don’t be surprised if, as you write, you reveal a value you hold that you had never especially acknowledged. This is a true gift to the reader, to leave them with your wisdom or knowledge.

Your philosophy can play a big role in the book, as it has likely led you to make certain decisions and can be featured and interlaced with certain events when your process of decision making was integral to the direction of your life.

22. Comedy and Funny Anecdotes

While you don’t want to overdo it on the comedy (unless it is a comedic autobiography, in which case, carry on!) a little comic relief can work wonders in this genre. It can lighten the mood and even make sad moments even more poignant. Funny stories specific to your family can add to the color of your characters, so they don’t fall flat .

23. Where to Begin ?

Think about when you might want to start your story. The logical point to start is from birth, but as your writing evolves over time, you may change your mind. You may want to add some perspective about your life from before you were even born. Your heritage may also be a large influence on who you are as a person today.

Once you have written a full first draft, you can consider changing around the order. Editing in this way can make for a more dynamic and varied read. If placed in the right way, you can even add in a plot twist or add to the suspense of your book.

24. Consider Your Reader

Don’t rest on your laurels. This can especially be a risk if you are writing only for friends or family. Just because someone knows you, it doesn’t mean your story will automatically become interesting to them. It will likely make it more interesting than if you were a random passerby, true. But this is not something to take for granted.

This point can be ignored during the first draft, but as you begin to develop your story, it becomes an implicit part of the process.

If you are wanting your book to sell, this becomes even more important as the reader’s interest and word of mouth can mean the difference between a book being put down or another sale.

25. How to Make Events More Colorful

Once you have written the thing, you will want to make sure that it is an interesting read. Even if you are writing just for friends and family, they will want to be excited by your life. And surely, that is why you are writing this in the first place?!

So a few tips to make sure that each story beat pops with color is to:

  • 1. Keep a notebook with you at all times for when you remember particular details about a person or place. Details will always give your story more originality and color.
  • 2. Show don’t tell – this is always relevant to any kind of writing and autobiography is no exception. Try adding in things you saw, smelt, tasted or touched within the scene. Avoid making a statement and describe what happened in the moment, instead.
  • 3. Add metaphor or simile- when describing a character or a vivid memory, don’t just describe how it looked on the surface. Unless this is not at all your writing style, you can enjoy emphasizing how something made you feel through descriptions that include metaphor. (use ext link for how to use metaphor) For example, ‘she was as fit as a fiddle’.
  • 4. Avoid common descriptive words – words such as ‘nice’ and ‘good’ should be considered with great caution once you have reached the third draft of your book.

26. Consider Your Reader

An important part of knowing how to write an autobiography, is having an awareness of the reader throughout the entire manuscript. This is not only a book for you. So don’t rest on your laurels.

This can especially be a risk if you are writing only for friends or family. Just because someone knows you, it doesn’t mean your story will automatically become interesting to them. It will likely make it more interesting than if you were a random passerby, true. But this is not something to take for granted.

Many new writers are tempted to leave in every detail of their life. But longer doesn’t always equal better – often it means that you simply haven’t cut out the parts that aren’t needed. So make sure you have your ego in check – don’t make your book too long just for the sake of it. Just because it’s interesting to you, does not mean every reader will want to know about it – family and friends included.

The average autobiography is around 75,000 words long. Much shorter than 60,000 and you might want to find other sources to write about, and any longer than 100,000, you might want to cut it down a bit.

28. Consider Privacy/Confidentiality

Much like memoir, autobiography includes characters who are real people. This means that some might be negatively affected by your work. So make sure to talk to those involved and to have an attorney at hand, just in case.

If you are unsure about leaving in their real name, it is best to give their character a pseudonym.

29. Editing

Both editing your book and getting it proofread will make or break it.

That means that you will want to find a professional editor to work with, who knows what she or he is doing. Ideally, you will want to find someone who is experienced in editing autobiography or memoir. Check that you have similar values and that you are both clear on what you are going to be working on, before you start.

30. Proofreading

Make sure that all your hard work shows. You can have a strong storyline and everything else in place, but if there’s a typo on the front cover, there is no way you will be taken seriously.

So, ask friends to check over your manuscript, or better yet, employ a few proofreaders to check it over for you. Don’t use the same editor to proofread, as they will find it more challenging to spot minute mistakes by the time they have reread the story more than once. A fresh pair of eyes will likely do a better job.

31. Autobiographies on the Shelf

The autobiographies in our bookshops today, you will notice, are mostly written by celebrities. This is because they often have interesting lives that we want to read about. They include incidents that we could never have access to otherwise, in our day to day lives.

And that’s what makes them so appealing.

Most people are not so interested in other’s lives, unless they have done something extraordinary. So if you’re thinking of writing something purely to try and get it sold, then you might want to rethink the genre you are writing in. We’re not saying it doesn’t happen that unknown authors sell a lot of autobiographies. It does. It’s just a lot less likely.

But don’t dismay, this is only a problem if that is the only reason you are writing your book. If it is because you feel impassioned to do so, then that is all the reason you need.

If it is for your friends and family to read, then you need not worry about big sales or landing a large publisher. It is so easy to self-publish these days on a relatively small budget, that you are pretty much guaranteed to achieve your aim.

If you are looking for a book deal, then you might be hard pushed, if you can’t say your life has an original element to it at all. If this is the case, consider writing a memoir , instead. There are many more memoirs written by ordinary people with extraordinary stories, than autobiographies. Because people love to hear about how ordinary people overcame the odds.

No matter what your reason, if you believe in your book enough to start writing the first page, then don’t let anyone stop you from writing the book inside of you.

So there you have it. Hopefully you will now feel confident about how to write an autobiography and ready to start. All it takes, is putting pen to paper.

how to write an autobiographical novel essays pdf

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How To Write an Autobiography 2024 (Tips, Templates, & Guide)

Your life story has value, merit, and significance. You want to share it with the world, but maybe you don’t know how .

Here’s how to write an autobiography:

Write an autobiography by creating a list of the most important moments, people, and places in your life. Gather photos, videos, letters, and notes about these experiences. Then, use an outline, templates, sentence starters, and questions to help you write your autobiography .

In this article, you are going to learn the fastest method for writing your autobiography.

We are going to cover everything you need to know with examples and a free, downloadable, done-for-you template.

What Is an Autobiography?

Typewriter, lightbulb, and crumpled paper - How To Write an Autobiography

Before you can write an autobiography, you must first know the definition.

An autobiography is the story of your life, written by you. It covers the full span of your life (at least, up until now), hitting on the most significant moments, people and events.

When you write your autobiography, you write an intimate account of your life.

What Should I Include In an Autobiography?

If you are scratching your head, baffled about what to include in your autobiography, you are not alone.

After all, a big part of how to write an autobiography is knowing what to put in and what to leave out of your life story. Do you focus on every detail?

Every person? Won’t your autobiography be too long?

A good way to think about how to write an autobiography is to use the Movie Trailer Method.

What do movie trailers include?

  • High emotional moments
  • The big events
  • The most important characters

When you plan, organize, and write your autobiography, keep the Movie Trailer Method in mind. You can even watch a bunch of free movie trailers on YouTube for examples of how to write an autobiography using the Movie Trailer Method.

When wondering what to include in your autobiography, focus on what would make the cut for a movie trailer of your life:

  • Most important people (like family, friends, mentors, coaches, etc.)
  • Significant events (like your origin story, vacations, graduations, life turning points, life lessons)
  • Emotional moments (When you were homeless, when you battled a life-threatening condition, or when you fell in love)
  • Drama or suspense (Did you make it into Harvard? Did your first surgery go well? Did your baby survive?)

Autobiography Structure Secrets

Like any compelling story, a well-structured autobiography often follows a pattern that creates a logical flow and captures readers’ attention.

Traditionally, autobiographies begin with early memories, detailing the writer’s childhood, family background, and the events or people that shaped their formative years.

From here, the narrative typically progresses chronologically, covering major life events like schooling, friendships, challenges, achievements, career milestones, and personal relationships.

It’s essential to weave these events with introspective insights.

This allows readers to understand not just the what, but also the why behind the author’s choices and experiences.

Towards the end, an effective autobiography often includes reflections on lessons learned, changes in perspective over time, and the wisdom acquired along life’s journey.

Example of the Structure:

  • Introduction: A gripping event or anecdote that gives readers a hint of what to expect. It could be a pivotal moment or challenge that defines the essence of the story.
  • Childhood and Early Memories: Recounting family dynamics, birthplace, cultural background, and memorable incidents from early years.
  • Adolescence and Discovering Identity: Experiences during teenage years, challenges faced, friendships formed, and personal evolutions.
  • Pursuits and Passions: Describing education, early career choices, or any particular hobby or skill that played a significant role in the author’s life.
  • Major Life Events and Challenges: Chronicles of marriage, parenthood, career shifts, or any significant setbacks and how they were overcome.
  • Achievements and Milestones: Celebrating major accomplishments and recounting the journey to achieving them.
  • Reflections and Wisdom: Sharing life lessons, changes in beliefs or values over time, and offering insights gained from lived experiences.
  • Conclusion: Summarizing the journey, contemplating on the present state, and sharing hopes or aspirations for the future.

How To Write an Autobiography Quickly: Strategies & Templates

Want the quickest way to organize and write your autobiography in record time? You can literally write your autobiography in 7 days or less with this method.

The secret is to use done-for-you templates.

I have personally designed and collected a series of templates to take you from a blank page to a fully complete Autobiography. I call this the How to Write an Autobiography Blueprint.

And it’s completely free to download right from this article. 🙂

In the How to Write an Autobiography Blueprint, you get:

  • The Autobiography Questions Template
  • The Autobiography Brainstorm Templates
  • The Autobiography Outline Template

Here is an image of it so that you know exactly what you get when you download it:

Autobiography Blueprint

How To Write an Autobiography: Step-by-Step

When you sit down to write an autobiography, it’s helpful to have a step-by-step blueprint to follow.

You already have the done-for-you templates that you can use to organize and write an autobiography faster than ever before. Now here’s a complete step-by-step guide on how to maximize your template.

  • Brainstorm Ideas
  • Order your sections (from medium to high interest)
  • Order the ideas in each section (from medium to high interest)
  • Write three questions to answer in each section
  • Choose a starter sentence
  • Complete a title template
  • Write each section of your by completing the starter sentence and answering all three questions

Brainstorm Your Autobiography

The first step in writing your autobiography is to brainstorm.

Give yourself time and space to write down the most significant people, events, lessons, and experiences in your life. The templates in the How to Write an Autobiography Blueprint provide sections for you to write down your brainstormed ideas.

How to Brainstorm Your Autobiography

This will help you organize your ideas into what will become the major sections of your book.

These will be:

  • Y our most significant events and experiences.
  • The people who impacted you the most.
  • The challenges you have overcome.
  • Your achievements and successes.
  • The lessons you have learned.

The “other” sections on the second page of the Brainstorm template is for creating your own sections or to give you more space for the sections I provided in case you run out of space.

As I brainstorm, I find asking myself specific questions really activates my imagination.

So I have compiled a list of compelling questions to help you get ideas down on paper or on your screen.

How to Write an Autobiography: Top 10 Questions

Order Your Sections (From Medium to High Interest)

The next step is to order your main sections.

The main sections are the five (or more) sections from your Brainstorm templates (Significant events, significant people, life lessons, challenges, successes, other, etc). This order will become the outline and chapters for your book.

How do you decide what comes first, second or third?

I recommend placing the sections in order of interest. Ask yourself, “What’s the most fascinating part of my life?”

If it’s a person, then write the name of that section (Significant People) on the last line in the How to Write an Autobiography Outline Template. If it’s an experience, place the name of that section (Significant Events) on the last line.

For example, if you met the Pope, you might want to end with that nugget from your life. If you spent three weeks lost at sea and survived on a desert island by spearfishing, that is your ending point.

Then complete the Outline by placing the remaining sections in order of interest. You can work your way backward from high interest to medium interest.

If you are wondering why I say “medium to high interest” instead of “low to high interest” it is because there should be no “low interest” parts of your autobiography.

But wait, what if you met the Pope AND spent three weeks lost at sea? How do you choose which one comes first or last?

First of all, I want to read this book! Second, when in doubt, default to chronological order. Whatever event happened first, start there.

Here is an example of how it might look:

Autobiography Example

Order The Ideas in Each Section (From Medium To High Interest)

Now, organize the ideas inside of each section. Again, order the ideas from medium to high interest).

Within your “Significant People” section, decide who you want to talk about first, second, third, etc. You can organize by chronological order (who you met first) but I recommend building to the most interesting or most significant person.

This creates a more compelling read.

Keep in mind that the most significant person might not be the most well-known, most famous, or most popular. The most significant person might be your family member, friend, partner, or child.

It comes down to who shaped your life the most.

So, if your “significant people list” includes your dad, a famous social media influencer, and Mike Tyson, your dad might come last because he had the biggest significance in your life.

Write Three Questions to Answer in Each Section

Ok, you’ve done the heavy lifting already. You have the major sections organized and outlined.

Next on your autobiography to-do list is to choose and write down three questions you are going to answer in each section. You can write your questions down in the provided “boxes” for each section on the template outline (or on another piece of paper.

This is easier than it might seem.

Simply choose one of the sample autobiography questions below or create your own:

  • Why did I choose this person/event?
  • What does this person/event mean to me?
  • How did I meet this person?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?
  • What is the most interesting part?
  • How did I feel about this person or event?
  • How do I feel now?
  • Why does this person or event matters to me?
  • How did this person or event change my life?
  • What is the most challenging part?
  • How did I fail?
  • How did I succeed?
  • What did I learn?

Questions are the perfect way to write quickly and clearly. I LOVE writing to questions. It’s how I write these blog posts and articles.

Choose a Starter Sentence

Sometimes the hardest part of any project is knowing how to start.

Even though we know we can always go back and edit our beginnings, so many of us become paralyzed with indecision at the starting gate.

That’s why I provided sample starter sentences in your How to Write an Autobiography Blueprint.

Here are the story starters:

  • I began writing this book when…
  • Of all the experiences in my life, this one was the most…
  • I’ve been a…
  • My name is…
  • Growing up in…
  • It wasn’t even a…
  • It all started when…
  • I first…
  • I was born…

Keep in mind that you do not need to begin your book with one of these story starters. I provide them simply to get you going.

The key is to not get bogged down in this, or any, part of writing your autobiography. Get organized and then get writing.

Complete a Title Template

At the top of the How to Write an Autobiography Outline is a place for you to write your book title.

Some authors struggle forever with a title. And that’s ok. What’s not ok is getting stuck. What’s not ok is if coming up with your title prevents you from finishing your book.

So, I provided a few title templates to help juice your creativity.

Just like the story starters, you do not need to use these title templates, but you certainly can. All you need to do is fill in the title templates below and then write your favorite one (for now) at the top of your outline. Presto! You have your working title.

You can always go back and change it later.

How to Write an Autobiography Title templates:

  • [Your Name]: [Phrase or Tag Line]
  • The [Your Last Name] Files
  • Born [Activity]: A [Career]’s Life
  • The Perfect [Noun]: The Remarkable Life of [Your Name]

Examples using the Templates:

  • Christopher Kokoski: Blog Until You Drop
  • The Kokoski Files
  • Born Writing: A Blogger’s Life
  • The Perfect Freelancer: The Remarkable Life of Christopher Kokoski

Write Your Autobiography

You have your outline. You have your title, templates, and sentence starters. All that is left to do is write your autobiography.

However, you can use tools like Jasper AI and a few other cool tricks to craft the most riveting book possible.

This is the easy way to remarkable writing.

Check out this short video that goes over the basics of how to write an autobiography:

How To Write an Autobiography (All the Best Tips)

Now that you are poised and ready to dash out your first draft, keep the following pro tips in mind:

  • Be vulnerable. The best autobiographies share flaws, faults, foibles, and faux pas. Let readers in on the real you.
  • Skip the boring parts. There is no need to detail every meal, car ride, or a gripping trip to the grocery store. Unless you ran into the Russian Mafia near the vegetables or the grocery store is perched on the side of a mountain above the jungles of Brazil.
  • Keep your autobiography character-driven . This is the story of YOU!
  • Be kind to others (or don’t). When writing about others in your story, keep in mind that there may be fallout or backlash from your book.
  • Consider a theme: Many autobiographies are organized by theme. A perfect example is Becoming . Each section of the book includes “becoming” in the title. Themes connect and elevate each part of the autobiography.
  • Write your story in vignettes (or scenes). Each vignette is a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. Each vignette builds. Each vignette should be described in rich sensory language that shows the reader the experience instead of telling the reader about the experience. Each vignette is immersive, immediate, and intimate.
  • Include snippets of dialogue. Use quotation marks just like in fiction. Show the dialogue in brief back-and-forth tennis matches of conversation. Remember to leave the boring parts out!
  • Choose a consistent tone. Some autobiographies are funny like Bossy Pants by Tina Fey. Others are serious such as Open by Andre Agassi. Your story (like most stories) will likely include a mix of emotions but choose an overall tone and stick with it.
  • Don’t chronicle, captivate . Always think about how to make each section, each chapter, each page, each paragraph, and each sentence more compelling. You want to tell the truth, but HOW you tell the truth is up to you. Create suspense, conflict, and mystery. Let drama linger until it becomes uncomfortable. Don’t solve problems quickly or take away tension right away.

How Do I Format an Autobiography?

Most autobiographies are written in the first person (using the pronouns I, me, we, and us).

Your autobiography is written about you so write as yourself instead of pretending to be writing about someone else.

Most autobiographies are also written in chronological order, from birth right up to your current age, with all the boring parts left out. That doesn’t mean you can’t play around with the timeline.

Sometimes it’s more interesting to start at a high moment, backtrack to the beginning and show how you got to that high moment.

Whatever format you choose, be intentional, and make the choice based on making the most compelling experience possible for your readers.

How Long Should an Autobiography Be?

There are no rules to how long an autobiography should be but a rough guideline is to aim for between 200 and 400 pages.

This will keep your book in line with what most readers expect for books in general, and will help get your book traditionally published or help with marketing your self-published book.

How To Write a Short Autobiography

You write a short autobiography the same way that you write a long autobiography.

You simply leave more out of the story.

You cut everything down to the bones. Or you choose a slice of your life as you do in a memoir. This often means limiting the people in your book, reducing the events and experiences, and shrinking your story to a few pivotal moments in your life.

How To Start an Autobiography

The truth is that you can start your autobiography in any number of ways.

Here are four common ways to begin an autobiography.

  • Start at the beginning (of your life, career or relationship, etc.)
  • Start at a high moment of drama or interest.
  • Start at the end of the story and work backward
  • Start with why you wrote the book.

Good Autobiography Titles

If you are still stuck on titling your autobiography, consider going to Amazon to browse published works. You can even just Google “autobiographies.”

When you read the titles of 10, 20, or 50 other autobiographies, you will start to see patterns or get ideas for your own titles. (HINT: the title templates in the Autobiography Blueprint were reverse-engineered from popular published books.

Also, check out the titles of the full autobiography examples below that I have included right here in this article.

Types of Autobiographies

There are several different kinds of autobiographies.

Each one requires a similar but slightly nuanced approach to write effectively. The lessons in this article will serve as a great starting point.

Autobiography Types:

  • Autobiography for School
  • Autobiography Novel
  • Autobiography for a Job
  • Short Autobiography
  • Autobiography for Kids

Therefore, there is actually not just one way to write an autobiography.

Memoir vs. Autobiography: Are They The Same?

It’s common to feel confused about a memoir and an autobiography. I used to think they were the same thing.

But, nope, they’re not.

They are pretty similar, which is the reason for all the confusion. A memoir is the story of one part of your life. An autobiography is the story of your full life (up until now).

What Is the Difference Between an Autobiography and a Biography?

An autobiography is when you write about your own life. A biography, on the other hand, is when you write the story of someone else’s life.

So, if I write a book about the life of the President, that’s a biography.

If the President writes a story about his or her own life, that’s an autobiography.

What Not To Include In an Autobiography

Autobiographies are meant to be a snapshot of our lives that we can share with others, but there are some things that are best left out.

Here are three things you should avoid including in your autobiography:

1) Anything That Readers Will Skip

Your life may not be filled with non-stop excitement, but that doesn’t mean you need to include every mundane detail in your autobiography.

Stick to the highlights and leave out the low points.

2) Character Attacks on Others

It’s okay to discuss conflicts you’ve had with others, but don’t use your autobiography as a platform to attack someone’s character.

Keep it civil and focus on your own experiences and how they’ve affected you.

3) Skipping Highlights

Just because something embarrassing or painful happened to you doesn’t mean you should gloss over it in your autobiography.

These are the moments that shape us and make us who we are today, so don’t skip past them just because they’re uncomfortable.

By following these simple tips, you can ensure that your autobiography is interesting, honest, and engaging.

How To Write an Autobiography: Autobiography Examples

I have always found examples to be extremely instructive. Especially complete examples of finished products. In this case, books.

Below you will find examples of published autobiographies for adults and for kids. These examples will guide you, motivate you and inspire you to complete your own life story.

They are listed here as examples, not as endorsements, although I think they are all very good.

The point is that you don’t have to agree with anything written in the books to learn from them.

Autobiography Examples for Adults

  • A Promised Land (Autobiography of Barack Obama)
  • If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won’t) (Betty White)
  • It’s a Long Story: My Life (Willie Nelson)
  • Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography (Rob Lowe)
  • Becoming (Michelle Obama)

Autobiography Examples for Kids

  • This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (NOT Disability) (Aaron Philips)
  • Bee Fearless: Dream Like a Kid (Mikaila Ulmer)

Final Thoughts: How To Write An Autobiography

Thank you for reading my article on How to Write an Autobiography.

Now that you know all of the secrets to write your book, you may want to get it published, market it, and continue to upskill yourself as an author.

In that case, read these posts next:

  • Can Anyone Write A Book And Get It Published?
  • The Best Writing Books For Beginners 2022 (My 10 Favorites)
  • Why Do Writers Hate Adverbs? (The Final Answer)
  • How To Write a Manifesto: 20 Ultimate Game-Changing Tips

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This Book Chapter is brought to you for free and open access by the Teaching & Learning at ODU Digital Commons. It has been accepted for inclusion in Teaching & Learning Faculty Publications by an authorized administrator of ODU Digital Commons. For more information, please contact [email protected]. Repository Citation Branyon, Angela; Diacopoulos, Mark; Gregory, Kristen; and Butler, Brandon, "The Power of Autobiography: Unpacking the Past, Understanding the Present, and Impacting the Future While Establishing a Community of Practice" (2016). Teaching & Learning Faculty Publications. 20.

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This article argues that significant autobiographies achieve forms unique to themselves alone, unlike biographies, which tend to follow patterns based on conventional expectations. The article draws on ideas from contemporary formalists such as Peter McDonald and Angela Leighton, but also considers ideas on significant form stemming from earlier writers and critics, such as P.N. Furbank and Willa Cather. In extracting from these writers the elements of what they consider comprises achieved form, the article does not seek to provide a rigid means of objectively testing the formal attributes of a piece of writing. It rather offers qualitative reminders of the need to be alert to the importance of form, even if the precise nature of this importance is not possible to define. Form is involved in meaning, and this continuously opens up possibilities regarding our relationship with the work in question. French genetic critic Debray Genette distinguishes between 'semantic effect' (the direct telling involved in writing) and 'semiological effect' (the indirect signification involved); it is the latter, the article argues in summation, which gives a work its singular nature, producing a form that is not predictable but is suggestive, imaginative.

Hannah Sullivan

Both diaries and autobiographies are difficult to end. Where diarists struggle to find the last words, autobiographies are prone to being revised after a first draft is complete. This essay compares several heavily rewritten autobiographies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book, Virginia Woolf's "A Sketch of the Past" and James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It argues that the problem of finishing a text is historically constituted, and shows why critics interested in life writing should pay closer attention to genetic processes.

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The Only (FREE) Autobiography Template You Need – 4 Simple Steps

POSTED ON Nov 22, 2023

Shannon Clark

Written by Shannon Clark

Are you looking for an autobiography template? 

First things first.

What is your story? Not the shiny, air-brushed one you edit before posting on Instagram or the one you politely share during a writer’s chat on Zoom.

By your story, I mean the one with the cracks in it caused by childhood insecurities or the deep craters forged by unexpected collisions with life—the triumphs and tragedies that are forever etched into your DNA.

Yes, that story.

When you’re truly ready to write an autobiography, you’ll know it because you’ve come to a point in your life where the beauty of sharing your story has nothing to do with perfection. It’s knowing that despite the roller coaster ride that started at birth, you’ve found the courage to stay on it—sometimes holding on for dear life and other times riding with your hands up and screaming at the top of your lungs. 

Get your autobiography template here:

Need A Nonfiction Book Outline?

You’ve lived thoroughly and learned to embrace who you’ve become in the process, scars and all. 

This post will show you the format for writing an autobiography and the best way to package your story so you can provide the best reader experience possible.

This blog gives you a free autobiography template and more…

What is an autobiography.

The basic definition of an autobiography is that it’s a first-person account of your life. It differs from a memoir , which usually focuses on a single event or group of events that lead you to a discovery about yourself, your life, or some other revelation. An autobiography is a look at the total sum of your life from birth (early childhood) to the time of your book’s writing that highlights the key points that shaped who you’ve become.

YouTube video

Ready to start writing your autobiography? Let's get into it…

What is the format for an autobiography? 

Just like any good story, every autobiography has a beginning, middle, and end. But before you begin filling in the sections, you want to come up with a theme for your book . Most people have too much life content to fit into one book. Selecting the parts that fit under the umbrella of a theme will make the book easier to follow. 

When coming up with a theme, think about what you want the key takeaway to be for the reader. You don’t want to give them some boring slog through your life history. If you want them to feel something, your book needs direction. That’s where your theme takes the lead. By keeping it in the back of your mind while writing, you’ll give your readers a track to stay on. Otherwise, they may lose interest and stop reading.

Once you have your theme, right down the events in your life that are related to your book’s focus. You’ll plug these into the outline as you develop it. 

Some examples of autobiography book themes are:

  • Overcoming challenges
  • Creating your own destiny
  • The unbreakable bonds of family
  • A faith journey
  • Perseverance

Your theme can be whatever you want it to be, but keep your audience in mind when selecting one. Below you’ll find an autobiography template. It includes an outline with writing prompts in each section. 

Whether you are an “outliner” (someone who outlines) or a “pantser” (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), the outline has enough structure and flexibility to make both writer types happy. 

Autobiography Template: An Outline

I've laid out what a traditional autobiography might look like below. But to really help you get the most out of the blog post, I recommend downloading our nonfiction book outline to use alongside this guide.

1.  Introduction 

Before you share your life story, prepare your readers for what is to follow by introducing yourself and telling them what they can expect. You can cover some or all of the following:

  • Why you are writing your autobiography?
  • What do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?
  • Any pertinent information that’s not covered in your book but that is needed for context.

2. The beginning – the early years

Since autobiographies are a condensed view of your life, you want to focus on the significant events that will move your story forward.

  • Where do you want to begin your story? 
  • Where does your book’s theme first show up when you look back over your life? You want the opening of your book to have an impact, so choose something that will hook your readers and bring them into your world.
  • How did your formative years influence how you viewed yourself? What we experience during our childhood can affect us for a lifetime. Consider how the early events of your life developed your character.
  • Who influenced you the most during your childhood?
  • What defining moments do you remember?

Where (on your timeline) and how you start your story is up to you. You want it to be something strong and significant to have the most impact on your reader. Here are the first few sentences of some autobiographies for inspiration .

Autobiography Template - &Quot;Not That Fancy&Quot; By Reba Mcentire

“Some would say the McEntires are a very set-in-their-ways, stubborn, hardheaded bunch of people. But I think that hardheadedness is what got Daddy to where he was, Grandpap to where he was, and his father, Pap, to where he was. Some might say it wasn't all that far- but it was much further than where they started!” 

– Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots by Reba McEntire

(Nostalgia / Specific Event)

Autobiography Template - &Quot;This Time Together&Quot; By Carol Burnett

“My grandmother Nanny and I were at the picture show. I hadn't reached two digits yet in age because I distinctly remember my feet couldn't touch the floor of the movie house. Nanny and I were still living in San Antonio, Texas. My mama and daddy had gone ahead to California, where Nanny and I would later wind up.” – This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett

(From Birth)

Autobiography Template - &Quot;God, Family, Country&Quot; By Craig Morgan

“ If you know my music, you almost certainly know me as Craig Morgan. But I was actually born Craig Morgan Greer. Craig Morgan came along many years later.” – God, Family, Country: A Memoir by Craig Morgan

  • 31 Best Autobiographies
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3. The middle- halfway between the early years and where you are today.

If you are using a timeline to divide your story, the period that you cover during the “middle” of your autobiography depends on how old you are at the writing of your book. If you are in your golden years, your midpoint might be in your 30s or 40s. For someone like Malala Yousafzai , who wrote her autobiography at age 15, her “middle” looked very different. 

Whichever “middle” you choose consider the following:

  • What are the defining moments during this time of your life? 
  • Did they change how you viewed yourself?
  • Did they change the trajectory of what you initially thought you’d do with your life?
  • Who had the most influence on your life during this time?
  • What are some of the challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
  • Did your worldview change during this time? If so, in what ways?

If your “middle” doesn’t fit neatly into a timeline, consider grouping your autobiography into themed sections.

The autobiography Cash by Johnny Cash groups his story into sections based on places that had special meaning to him: Cinnamon Hill, The Road, Port Rickey, Bon Aqua, and The Road Again.

4. The end—wrap-up

The end of your autobiography is the climax. It’s what you’ve been leading your reader to since the first sentence of your book. 

  • Where are you in your life now? What have you learned? How has your journey impacted who you’ve become? 
  • How do you want the reader to feel when they read the last sentence of your book? Inspired? Hopeful? Full? Enlightened? Satisfied? All of the above? 
  • Is there any part of your life that feels unfinished or incomplete? 
  • Looking back over your life, what is the greatest lesson you learned?
  • Don’t forget your audience, especially at the beginning of your book. You want to hook your readers early and bring them along for the ride.
  • Write an eye-catching autobiography title for your book.
  • Leave out the minutia. If it doesn’t move your story along, drop it. 
  • Tone matters. A good rule of thumb is to write your story like you were talking to a friend. Your story doesn’t have to be a monotone race to the finish line. Spice it up. Add some sparkle. Make sure your personality shines through. 
  • It’s always about the story. Buyers pick up your book to be entertained. Regardless of how serious your story is, it should be presented in a way that makes the reader want to keep turning the page. 
  • Every good story has a resolution. Good or bad, offer a resolution for each life conflict you introduce.
  • As you share the final pieces of your story, use the end of your story to reflect on where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, and where you plan to go from there. Every relationship that ends can benefit from closure, and if the end of your story is not the end of your relationship with your reader, tell them where they can go to continue getting to know you.

Writing your autobiography is a courageous move, but who better to write your life story than you? If you have experiences that others will find interesting, share! You never know how your journey will impact someone else. 

If you’re serious about getting your story published, has a team of publishing experts who can walk you through the book development process.

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The Barefoot Memoirist: Ina Garten Takes Her Story to a New Publisher

Garten, the Food Network star and best-selling cookbook author, has moved her highly anticipated fall autobiography from Celadon to Crown.

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Ina Garten stands in a long dark jacked with a red lanyard and a medal around her neck. She’s smiling at the camera.

By Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris

In 2019, the celebrity chef Ina Garten set off a flurry of excitement among her millions of fans: Garten, a Food Network star, best-selling cookbook author and social media sensation, was writing a memoir.

The publisher behind the book, Celadon, celebrated the acquisition of what was sure to be a best seller in a news release. “Ina Garten is beloved by all, a national treasure who has become iconic beyond the food world,” Deb Futter, now the president and publisher of Celadon Books, an imprint of Macmillan, said in the release. “Her memoir will cement her legacy in the cultural landscape.”

When Garten recently updated her Instagram bio to note the book’s October release date, the revelation once again led to online chatter and a cascade of news articles.

One crucial detail was missing: The book was no longer coming from Macmillan. Instead, it will be published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

There’s little information about the memoir online, and the change in publisher — which has not been publicly announced — will likely make little difference to readers and fans of Garten, whose cookbooks have more than 14 million copies in print. But for Macmillan, losing a blockbuster fall book — the season when most publishers release their big name authors — to a rival could be a blow.

It’s unusual, though not unheard-of, for a major author to change publishers after a contract is signed. Typically such breakups happen when a writer and publisher have irreconcilable creative differences, or sometimes when an author gets poached with a more enticing advance from a rival company. Authors usually return their advance to sever a contract.

In an interview, Futter said that there hadn’t been any disagreement about the direction of the book, but that Garten had a long history with Crown, which released 13 of her cookbooks through their Clarkson Potter imprint.

“Ina and I worked really well together, and I’m really proud of the work I did on the book,” Futter said. “I want it to get a great reception.”

In a statement, David Drake, the president of Crown Publishing Group, declined to comment on the memoir moving from Celadon to Crown, but said the company was “thrilled to be reunited with her for the publication of her entertaining and revealing memoir,” which he described as her “inspiring and instructive life story.”

Garten did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The market for celebrity memoirs — which have long been reliable best sellers for publishers — has gotten even more heated in recent years, with publishers offering multimillion dollar advances. Some of last year’s top-selling books were tell-alls by big names like Prince Harry and Britney Spears.

Garten, one of the food world’s biggest stars, has built a massive social media following. She has 4.3 million followers on Instagram, where she endears herself to fans with her down-to-earth demeanor, forgiving attitude toward novice home cooks (“store bought is fine!” is one of her catchphrases) and her love of indulgences like giant daytime cocktails.

She also had an unusual path to stardom. She worked for Presidents Ford and Carter as a budget analyst for nuclear policy at the Office of Management and Budget before pivoting to food and opening her store in the Hamptons, Barefoot Contessa. From there, she created a food empire, with best-selling cookbooks that she released at a steady clip, and a popular, long-running show on the Food Network.

So far, she has revealed little about the content of her memoir, but that hasn’t stopped her passionate followers from speculating that it will be dishy: “Spill the tea, Ina!” one of her fans wrote on Instagram.

Julia Moskin contributed reporting.

Alexandra Alter writes about books, publishing and the literary world for The Times. More about Alexandra Alter

  More about Elizabeth A. Harris

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In her new memoir, “Splinters,” the essayist Leslie Jamison  recounts the birth of her child  and the end of her marriage.

The Oscar-nominated film “Poor Things” is based on a 1992 book by Alasdair Gray. Beloved by writers, it was never widely read  but is now ripe for reconsideration.

Even in countries where homophobia is pervasive and same-sex relationships are illegal, queer African writers are pushing boundaries , finding an audience and winning awards.

In Lucy Sante’s new memoir, “I Heard Her Call My Name,” the author reflects on her life and embarking on a gender transition  in her late 60s.

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