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Dark window silhouette. Can you write a book about yourself and your own life story?
novel writing techniques

How to Write a Fiction Book About Yourself

October 20, 2019
October 20, 2019

Can you write a book about yourself and your own life story?

It’s one of the questions we get asked the most, and a natural one when you start writing. After all, we’ve had the mantra of write what you know drilled into us, and you doubtless have an amazing life story you’re raring to share. Plus, there’s a real trend at the moment toward the true story in film and television as well as literary and publishing communities.

But writing your entire life story is a daunting task. While it’s easy for us to enjoy a scandalous true story that has nothing to do with us, writing about our own family members and personal life is a much more emotionally complex endeavour.

You might, then, toy with the idea of semi-autobiographical writing within the realms of fiction. But even here, telling your own story can be challenging in all sorts of ways. So before you begin writing, let’s take a look at how to write a book about yourself without losing your mind – or your readers.

Do writers write about themselves?

writing a book about yourself can seem a daunting task but your life story and life experiences can provide material

As writers, we often wrestle with the demands of creativity. Can you create something wholly original? Can you find inspiration from somewhere outside of your own life?

Yes. But don’t worry if you can’t right now.

Don’t be shy of drawing from your personal story and experiences even if you’re not setting out to write a book about yourself. Fiction and non-fiction aren’t as neatly delineated as we might like to think. Just look at what some of these wondrous writers think about it:

All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.
— P.D. James
It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Coetzee who emerges from an informed reading of his papers is a very different author from the one we thought we knew. Most surprisingly, his writing process turns out to be highly autobiographical, at least in its points of departure. It then involves a gradual, but determined process of writing himself out of the narratives, a ‘burning off of the self’ as it were.
— David Attwell

P.D. James, Graham Greene, Coetzee, Knausgaard and Ferrante readily admit that their stories are about them. It’s where a story starts.

Where it ends is elsewhere. You rub yourself out.

Write a book about yourself that isn’t really about you

And that’s the secret: a novel starts with you, but ends without you.

start writing a book about your life but create strong characters with memories written as if another person's life

Why? And how?

You can think of writing as a form of therapy. The story starts with your deepest concern, and your inability to cope with it. You look your ineptitude in the eye and see it, but you can’t deal with it.

So give it to someone else to deal with! Write the book about yourself and your fears, but palm them off to some other character. While memoir focuses on you as you really are – a book about your life in the most straightforward way – the story you write can take aspects of yourself and your experiences and share them around a cast of fictional characters.

A cat brings in a mouse from the garden – a mad, terrified, scuttling thing – and drops it on the carpet as if to say ‘deal with it.’

It’s just like that.

You need to deal with it, but with the sleight-of-hand common to all artists; you do so at arm’s length, holding your nose, averting your eyes.

Make your protagonist very different from yourself

When you’re deciding who you’ll give your fears and foibles to, consider a character who bears very little resemblance to how you see yourself.

If you give it to someone who is like you, it won’t work. You’ll be back to square one, puzzling over how to write a book about your life that anyone would want to read. You’ll have no sympathy at all. Your character won’t be able to solve your problems, and you’ll treat ‘them’ with the impatience and disdain you reserve for yourself. Like all people, writers struggle to have empathy for themselves.

So before you start writing, give it to someone you could feel sorry for. Play with their appearance, personality, gender, upbringing. Make it all different from yourself.

start writing a book about your life but create strong characters with memories written as if another person's life

If you’re a woman, make them a man. If you’re shy, make them confident. You’re quiet, they’re loud. They’re humble and you’re proud.

Do you ever come up with a great retort three days (or more) after an argument? No problem. In fiction, give your fears and foibles to the character who comes up with the snappy retort in the room.

By making them different to you, you can ask yourself during the writing: what would this character do in this scenario?

That’s a much more powerful driver of fiction than trying to recount exactly what you would do, or the real life events that unfolded.

Give yourself the jumping-off point of fantasy. It’s so much more fun to write.

A good story can move from autobiographical writing to become a life description of another person if you add drama to the writing process

Remember that you write for yourself, but not for your ego

If when you see something beautiful your first thought is of possession, then your second and overruling thought should be becoming that thing. That’s your higher purpose. To rise and disappear. To change, as many times as necessary. Writing novels enables multiple metamorphoses.

Report and reflect on life, don’t adjudicate.

Your writer’s ambition should not be for you. It should be for your art, your writing, for what you can create with what you’ve been given. Separate that ambition from the ambition for ‘yourself’, from the desire to gain superiority through recognition, status or money, and all will be well.

Happy writing.

Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team