An autobiography is an account of one’s life written by the subject.
The author spends the pages of an autobiographical novel or short novella writing about their personal life. It might focus on one especially interesting period or start with the author’s birth and end with wherever they are in life at the moment they finished the book.
Definition and Explanation of Autobiography
An autobiography is different from a biography in that the story is written by and about the author. In a biography, someone else writes the story of another person’s life. Both forms of writing are incredibly important and common, but an autobiography, in theory, should provide a more intimate look into a person’s life. Biographies require research where autobiographies don’t, meaning that the biographer might not find out everything they need to know, or should know, about someone. On the other side, sometimes biographies can be more truthful than autobiographies as biographers are, in most cases, working only with the facts. It’s easier to change details in order to make one’s own life seem more attractive when writing an autobiography.
Types of Autobiographies
- Full Autobiography: a traditional biography that spans the whole lifetime of the person writing it. It starts at birth, goes through childhood, adulthood, and into whatever age the person is at while they’re writing. Someone would choose to write this kind of book because they feel their whole life is of interest to readers, rather than just a particular period.
- Memoir: an account of a specific period in the author’s life. There are many different types of memoirs, but at their most basic level, they focus on a part of the author’s life they think is worth sharing.
- Spiritual: based in spiritual experiences and revelations. People who write spiritual autobiographies often feel as though they have to share what they experienced so that others might come to the same conclusions they did.
- Overcoming adversity: similar to the other types of autobiographies, these stories are based around a terrible experience, one that required the writer to learn something about the world and about themselves. By sharing it, they’re teaching others what they learned.
Examples of Autobiographies
Night by Elie Wiesel
Wiesel’s personal account of the Holocaust is one of the most commonly read autobiographies today. Although there are some elements that Wiesel added to create some space between himself and Eliezer, Elie’s story is Eliezer’s story. It follows him as a teenager, losing his family members, working in Auschwitz, and seeing the horrors of the Holocaust first hand. Here is a short excerpt from the novel that demonstrate’s Wiesel’s understanding of his experiences:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke.
This novel is also a great example of why someone would want to write an autobiography—in order to share their experiences and ensure that they aren’t forgotten. This was Wiesel’s overriding goal in writing Night.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1994 and describes Mandela’s early life, his education and the twenty-seven years he spent in prison. He was considered a terrorist under the apartheid government and spent almost thirty years of his life on Robben Island for his participation in the African National Congress. Here are a few famous lines from the autobiography:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written around 1845 and is one of the best-known stories of slavery written during this period. The text describes his life in such moving detail that the book became an important informative guide for abolitionists. He speaks about the death of his mother, seeing family members whipped, learning the alphabet from Sophia Auld, and his personal suffering at the hands of Mr. Covey. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the novel that emphasize Douglass’s alienation from his mother.
Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother’s] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
Why Do Writers Write Autobiographies?
Autobiographies are one of the most basic and commonly written forms of prose. It is entirely natural for any human being, not just professional writers to want to share their personal story. This might be for the sole purpose of connecting with an audience or for the possibility of having another person find one’s life worth reading about.
Importance of Autobiographies
Autobiographies are a wonderful historical resource. They’re first-hand accounts of someone’s life, the thoughts they had, the ideas they pursued, and all the struggles they endured. Depending on whose story it is, the book might have a broader importance to a community, culture, or country. These stories are also important for another reason, they allow writers (and those who wouldn’t consider themselves writers) to share and build connections with readers. When reading an autobiography of someone that one feels is an important figure, and finding similarities between their life and one’s own can be an important revelation. One might learn what led this person to success or to overcome adversity and then be able to implement the same things into their life.
- Life story
- Personal history
- Personal account.
Related Literary Devices
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution and more.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learns about the past.
- Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.