How to Write Autobiography: 9 Essential Steps

Nadia Colburn // March 1, 2022 // 12 Comments

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.–Maya Angelou

First: Why Autobiography; What’s the Difference Between Autobiography and Memoir?

Traditionally, autobiography is considered a form famous people write to record their lives, from birth to the time of writing. Similarly, a person who is not well-known might write an autobiography to document the events of their life for their children or family.

A memoir, by contrast, need not be written by someone who is already well known. Memoirs also tend not to document the whole life, but instead focus on one period and explore a particular theme or question.

Most writing classes focus on memoir, not autobiography. But I find it helpful to think about writing your life as an autobiography–at least for a little while.

Thinking about the full scope of your life is a powerful and necessary first step towards writing your best work. This process is helpful for all writers, whether you ultimately want to write memoir, poetry, creative nonfiction, even fiction. When we look at our whole life consciously, with curiosity, we have the power to change our relationship with the past. If we don’t see the full shape of our life, we will remain stuck in our blind spots, our triggers. We will be destined to repeat old stories that have been handed to us, that aren’t ours.

Thinking about the full scope of your life is also a powerful tool for self-understanding, healing, growth, and self-realization.

No, we don’t have the power to change what is not in our control, but we do have the power to change what is, to understand where we come from and how we want to make sense of and respond to our lives and the world around us.

This is the work of writers and artists, and it’s potent!

My free 5-part masterclass on how to Align Your Story is a great way to begin. Sign up here for free so that you get step-by-step support to write your own story–this is for writers of any level and working in any genre! 

1) How Do You Start: How to Write Autobiography

When we write autobiography, we explore the larger shape of our life,

So often, we get stuck in details and don’t see the forest for the trees. Even in therapy, we often get bogged down in this or that particular problem, issue, or relationship. But what is the overall structure?

Rarely do we take time to step back and take the time and space to look at the bigger dimensions of our experiences, what has affected us and how we have responded.

To explore the larger shape of your life, start by making a timeline.

Write down all the significant events of your life. What happened that was significant? Put them on the timeline.

You might want to include events even before you were born. What significant things happened in your family’s life that shaped you?

You might want to include events in the social, political, natural world around you. We are shaped by the larger world as well.

Continue to add events as they come to you. Fill in the timeline.

Then go back and circle the most important events. What made the most significant impact on you for the long term?

Second, make a simplified version.

After you’ve filled out your timeline, write a streamlined version that explores the most important factors in your life. Try to keep this version to three pages.

In this version, you are now looking to express the larger shape. How did the events of the past shape you; how did one action/ experience lead to another action/ experience/ emotion?

In this version, pay attention not only to the facts, but also to the emotional experience.

Experiment with a few different ways to tell this story. Write a few different versions. It might take you a few tries to arrive at a version that feels aligned for you.

2) How to Write Autobiography: Write an Outline

After you’ve done both of the steps above, you can now write your outline. What do you want to include in your autobiography?

Be aware of the scope of your project. Do you want to write a whole book or a ten page version? Write your outline accordingly.

3) How to Write Autobiography: Format

It’s easiest to keep your autobiography in chronological order.

Once you are clear on your outline, it’s helpful to break it into sections and then into chapters. These can change over the course of writing, but it will help you get the work done if you understand the shape and format your autobiography might take.

4) How to Write Autobiography: Your Voice

When we start to write, we can often feel uncertain about our writing voice.

This uncertainty is natural. In the first drafts, don’t worry about having a clean version.

All writers have “shitty first drafts.” Don’t worry about polishing and making your writing perfect. That’s like going in and trying to choose the ideal paint color for the trim of your house while the house is still under construction.

But you will have a better, more rewarding time if you feel more aligned with your writing voice through the process.

Here are some tools that can help:

  • Use your authentic voice. You don’t need to write differently from how you speak. Be yourself.
  • Try telling your story aloud instead of writing it. You can use voice recordings on google docs or even just record into your phone. Speaking your  story aloud can be empowering and liberating.
  • Clear your mind before writing. Often, our mind is cluttered by other people’s voices and worries that have nothing to do with the writing we’re doing. Meditating before writing is very powerful. My free online meditation recordings for writers can help.
  • Connect with your body as you write. Our stories happen not just in our mind but in our bodies, too. Write from your full self. My free online meditation and yoga practices for writers can help with this.
  • Support your writing time (see more below).

5) How to Write Autobiography: Support Your Writing.

Most of us have difficult parts of our life stories. It’s hard to get through life without them. And those difficult parts affect us.

When we write our story, we can free ourselves from the negative effects of those difficult experiences. When we write, we can put those experiences on the page and no longer need to carry them in our bodies. But to do this, it’s helpful to have supports.

Here are some supports:

  • Writing with a community can be enormously helpful in helping you structure your time and project so that you don’t feel so alone and the project has boundaries.
  • Using meditation and yoga to calm your body and mind–both before and after you write—is a powerful way to support yourself. Meditation and yoga can also help you discharge the negative energy that comes up in the writing process. They can help you tap into a larger container and a greater sense of wellbeing, peace, and joy, even while working with challenging material.
  • Keeping your writing in a safe place and being confident that no one will read it before you are ready to share it is also important.
  • Having people you can go to for emotional support is also helpful; here, again, a writing community is a great benefit.
  • Reading other autobiographies and memoirs (see more below).

6) How to Write Autobiography: Learn from Other Writers

Learning from other writers is one of the best ways to improve your writing. Read actively as a writer. Learn from other writers’ techniques.

Reading other autobiographies can also help us have a bigger perspective on our own life experiences. While everyone’s experiences are unique, reading can help us remember how we are all also connected. Sometimes when we write, we can feel isolated in our experiences. But reading helps us feel supported in our own life story. We can remember that we are not our experiences, that while our experiences shape us, they do not define us.

7) How to Write Autobiography: Revise

The revision process is critical. You’re not going to get the story right on the first round.

In fact, in re-reading your story, you’ll likely notice new things and have new insights.

Let the writing and revision processes guide you. Allow both the writing and revision processes to be ones of discovery. You will definitely grow through writing your autobiography.

8) How to Write Autobiography: Share (When You’re Ready)

One of the most powerful things about writing is that you don’t need to share our words until you’re ready. The page can be a safe place to try things, explore, be yourself without needing to be judged, and make mistakes.

You might not know exactly what is true for you. Write your story down and see how it feels.

You can get support from a writing community without needing to share the work itself.

Keep your writing safe so that no one finds it until you’re ready to share it.

But when you’re ready to share, be sure first to share it with people you trust who will support you.

Then, when you’re ready, you can share it with larger communities.

Your story has the power to help change and inspire others. But not until you’re ready. And, if you prefer not ever to share it, that’s okay, too. Just doing this work yourself is powerful transformative work that will shape others in the ways you’re able to show up in the world with more peace, ease, grace, and power.

9) The Benefits of Writing Autobiography

Writing our story—understanding it, coming to terms with it, putting it into words, putting it on the page, and sharing it with others—is one of the most powerful things any of us can do. We cannot control the world around us, but we can choose how we want to respond. And those choices have enormous power over our inner and outer lives.

Indeed, I believe that the single greatest thing we can do to live with more inner peace and happiness individually is to come to understand and love our own stories and selves.

If we don’t understand and express ourselves, our experiences live within us in unhealthy ways. It’s like a pressure cooker, waiting to explode.

We get triggered, we act out; we experience anxiety and depression; we cannot sleep well; our immune system is affected; and we may become physically ill.

One of the biggest causes of stress is having unexpressed parts of our story. As Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

To tell our story is an act of empowerment. It’s an assertion of the value of individual voices and experiences. It’s a way to defy the forces of silence, oppression, and tyranny.

As you’re writing stay connected to your reasons for writing and to the benefits.

When we get clear on our story, when we see the shape of our life and write it out, we assume agency. The old story no longer directs us. Instead, we can be present; we can accept where our life has taken us so far and choose what attitude and direction we want for our future.

When we show up with courage and honesty for our own story, we get to shift the larger cultural story.

Whatever genre we ultimately write in, memoir, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, writing autobiography can empower us. Even if we’re not interested in writing in and of itself, getting clear on our story, putting it on the page, understanding and expressing the shape of our life, and taking agency is transformative work. We come to see both where we come for and the ways we are distinct from our story. We are healthier, happier, and more able to engage in any activity with our full attention and abilities.

Your autobiography may also be a precious document that you can share with your family and loved ones so that they understand you and aso themselves better.

Understanding our past is ultimately the best way to liberate ourselves from the unhelpful patterns and energies that have been handed down to us. When we write autobiography, we are not just writing, we are also rewriting the story!

Please share this post with friends who might enjoy it. And please leave a comment below. I love to hear from you! Have you written autobiography? Do you have any questions? I’d love to support you.

My free 5-part masterclass on how to Align Your Story is a great way to begin writing your story. Sign up here for free so that you get step-by-step support to write your own story–this is for writers of any level and working in any genre! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. Oh, Nadia!

    Your email reached me at the perfect time today. With the horrible events in Ukraine that are happening now my thoughts of precious Fima take me to another time.

    I will join you on this next journey of discovery.

    Thank you.

  2. Oh Nadia, you may have given me the motivation to do what I need to do to become a writer.
    I am excited. 9

  3. Such Perfect timing Nadia.

    Finding you when I did, and writing as I do helps me to ‘be’ better, and be more on the path to alignment, and enlightenment as I create art and story from the bits and bobs I see in the street, on the beach, the people I meet, and from the bits of my mind at this moment and from another time.

    This encourages me to share more widely as I continue to make sense of life as I live and love as I go.

  4. Thank you so much Nadia. This has given me a nudge to begin again…
    I belong to a writer’s group in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico .
    I have written many memoirs and attempted autobiography. But usually
    stop. Thank you for the incentive ☮️

  5. Thank you. I wrote this morning after listening to you recording on writing an autobiography. I've been unable to put pen to paper. My pen is grateful for the release kind lady.

  6. I am taking Align your story and I am working on my autobiography. I have trouble with parts of the technology but I am working on this. Thank you for being you
    Patricia Richmond

    1. Hi Patricia–you can always send me an email when you run into tech issues 🙂 So glad to have you in the course!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Enjoyed this article?

Find more great content here:

How to Write Autobiography: 9 Essential Steps

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.–Maya ...

Read More
Adult Writing Prompts: Great Prompts to Inspire You

So first, what are adult writing prompts? Adult writing prompts are not ...

Read More
The number one tip for writers

My number one tip for writers If you’ve worked with me, you’ve ...

Read More
How to Write Autobiography: 9 Essential Steps

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.–Maya ...

Read More
Adult Writing Prompts: Great Prompts to Inspire You

So first, what are adult writing prompts? Adult writing prompts are not ...

Read More
The number one tip for writers

My number one tip for writers If you’ve worked with me, you’ve ...

Read More
Why Writing Is Important: 2 Key Reasons

Why Writing Is Important… Why write? I was on vacation the last ...

Read More