Autobiography: what is autobiography, definition, characteristics, how to write an autobiography


What is an autobiography?

It is a narration about the life of a person written entirely by him/herself, being the main reason why it is distinguished from the biography. The autobiography is one of the subgenres of the didactic genre in which the author gives an account of his experiences in life, from his birth to the present time, if he so wishes.

Often within the autobiography may be present other subgenres of the same genre or not, as are the epistle, memoirs, diaries, etc..

Meaning of the subgenre autobiography

The term comes from the English autobiography, which was born as a neologism during the first years of the 19th century. It is considered that the term is used for the first time by Robert Southey, a renowned poet and biographer of the time, who mentioned the term in an article around 1809. However, many experts consider that the term would be named much earlier.

Definition of the subgenre autobiography

The autobiography can be defined as a text in which episodes of life are narrated written by the person who actually lived them. In autobiography, emphasis is placed on decisive situations in the author’s life. Its relationship and links between literature and history are often discussed.

History and origin of autobiography

Before the term properly defined appeared, during antiquity, texts of this type had already begun to be made, although they did not consider all the features of autobiography that we consider today. One of the most important works that is considered a precursor of the subgenre is called The Confessions of St. Augustine.

subgenre autobiography

Characteristics of the autobiography subgenre

Let’s look at the key characteristics of this didactic subgenre:

Life of the author

Another of the forms with which the autobiography has been defined is directly related to a form of confession, since the autobiography is considered to be a revelation of the intimate life told in the first person that the author makes of his life and work, whose personal content allows to increase the depth of his life with the reader.

It is important to keep in mind that always, in the autobiography, it will be the author giving an account of his life in the text, so he becomes the center of the story itself.

Flexible structure

Another aspect that is important to mention is that the autobiography has a structure that allows the author to use it in his own way, so that he is not subject to a defined scheme, but can accommodate the information as he sees fit. On the other hand, he also has the freedom to choose the type of language he will use to narrate his autobiography. Much of this is evident in published autobiographies in which comic features can be observed within the text, as well as others that are very sad and nostalgic.

Extension of the autobiography

Since it is a completely free structure on the part of the author, the length is also handled with total freedom, which is why there is no fixed length that establishes how long it should be.

How to write an autobiography?

Now that we have seen everything related to the composition and aspects of the autobiography, it is time to review how we can start writing one. To do this, we must take into account the following:

Make an outline

The first thing to do is that, taking into account that there is no defined structure that governs the order of the content that will have the information of the autobiography, it is necessary to consolidate an outline that, broadly speaking, allows us to have an overview of the events and periods of major importance in history.

Adding anecdotes

In contrast to the scheme previously outlined, it is necessary to add to it, from the memory and specific moments, the memories, the experiences that are decisive for decision making and the twists and turns that are usually given to us around a given situation. Therefore, it is not enough to have a general overview, but it must be nourished by funny, sad, complex experiences, etc., that complement those facts. This will also serve to define the tone of the autobiography.

Start writing 

When you have this information and points ready, it is time to start writing. Choose the point from which you want to tell the story, it does not necessarily have to be from birth, when our memories are few and what we know is given by close relatives who saw us grow up. You can choose another moment of your life from which there is a higher level of awareness to try.

Keep in mind that the text should be constructed in the first person, so it should be written from the “I”.

Consider the context 

A basic element that is of great importance for the development of an autobiography is the context. This means, for example, from the time and historical place in which one lives, since it allows to locate the reader and in fact, allows to refer and consider inclinations and consequences of decisions and events that one had to live. This, on the other hand, adds a content of fundamental interest to keep the reader’s attention.

Division of the autobiography

Although this will depend on the writer’s style, many authors divide the text into chapters or sections through which the reader follows the route. This can be useful as a reference point also for the writer, where he can divide not only the moments of his life, but research and all kinds of annexes that he wants to incorporate to the moments.

Remember that it is always a good help to read published autobiographies of important or relevant figures in history (below we leave you an excerpt and authors that you can review), this will serve to have a previous idea about the writing possibilities that may be present in the autobiography and how you can print your own touch in its development.

Most important authors and works

Some of the most important authors and writers of the subgenre, due to the compilation of information and the recognition their works received as autobiographies, are: Saint Theresa, Giacomo Casanova, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang, Thomas de Quincey, Francois René de Chateaubriand, Leo Tolstoy, José Zorrilla, André Gide, Stendhal, among others.

Example of the sub-genre autobiography

One of the most important works of this subgenre is the work entitled The Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, considered the main exponent of autobiography. This is an excerpt from the work:

“I was saying this and weeping with the bitterest contrition of my heart, when behold, from the next house I heard a voice as of a boy or girl, singing and repeating many times: Take and read, take and read. My countenance changed, and I immediately began to consider with particular care whether by any chance the boys used to sing that or something similar in any of their games, and it did not appear to me that I had ever heard it. So, repressing the impetus of my tears, I got up from that place, not being able to interpret that voice in any other way than as an order from heaven, in which I was commanded by God to open the book of the Epistles of St. Paul, and read the first chapter that happened to come to me. For I had heard it told of the holy Abbot Anthony, that entering by chance into the church at the time those words of the Gospel were read, Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and then follow me, he had understood them as if they spoke to him determinately, and obeying that oracle, he had been converted to Thee without any detention.”