The New Autobiography is a vibrantly democratic and deeply personal type of narrative writing that, while little understood, is becoming popular in our culture.  it is new because it is being written by new voices, not only those who represent the official and dominant view from the top.  It is new because it is written as self-discovery rather than self-promotion.  It is new because it beholds the individual’s life, not through Puritan mandates of moral edification, nor nineteenth-century credos of materialistic success, nor twentieth-century formulas of reductionist psychology, but through the cohesion of literature and myth. It is a way of saying, “I matter; this life I have lived has meaning!  And because I tell it from my perspective, because I frame it, it has the meaning I give it.”

            Like the New Journalism developed by Tom Wolfe and other magazine writers of the late 1960s, New Autobiography appropriates storytelling devices from the realistic novel.  It is often written in dramatic scenes with dialogue and interior monologues.  It uses novelistic devices to reach inner truths, not just the truth of facts.

            To shape an autobiographic story, in the process you recall your yearnings and dreams and their place in your destiny.  You are led away from perceiving your history as a series of accidents or calamities that wrongly formed you.  “We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood, James Hillman (The Soul’s Code) writes, “than by the traumatic way we remember childhood.” and  “We dull our lives by the way we conceive them.  We have stopped imagining them with any sort of romance, any fictional flair.”  Through the autobiographic process you restore the “romance” and the “fictional flair” of story to your own life, and you replace old stories of powerlessness with stories of consciousness and revelation in which you are the protagonist.  By applying story structure to your life you necessarily replace unconscious, unexamined scripts with consciously chosen stories…  Stories lead to a climax that is a point of transformation. 

            When I view myself as the heroine of my own story, I no longer complain about the conflicts in my life and in myself.  I am no longer a victim of circumstances…  I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas that contain hidden meaning that is up to me to discover.  I am the artist of my life who takes the raw materials given, no matter how bizarre, painful or disappointing and gives them shape and meaning.  I am within each scene and each chapter of my life, defining my character through the choices I make.  I am on my own side, rooting for myself, aching for myself, celebrating my sensual experiences, marveling in the exquisite subtlety of feeling in my life that novelists have made me aware of in their books. I am as engaged with the ongoing story in my life as is a reader who eagerly turns the page.

      In its simplest form a story is: what you wanted, how you struggled and what you realized out of that struggle.  A story is a series of interrelated events that you made happen and that happened to you, and the consequence.  The consequence is a change in you.  In an autobiographic story, change may occur in other characters, but it must also occur in you, because you are the protagonist.  The change may come form an event (you married, you got old), but it is also a moral change.  You had a realization, a shift in values or perception.  In other words, within the story you made a “character arc,” you had a change in character…  You trace this character arc in an autobiographic story by including your feelings, reactions to the events you experienced and your realizations.  You give the events of your life significance because of what they meant to you and how you changed from your engagement with them.  An autobiographic story is not just an account of events; it is the charting of your emotional, moral and psychological course, which gives meaning to those events.

                                          –Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story



             Sit in a comfortable chair with your pen and paper at hand, at a time and in a spot where you won’t be interrupted.  if it’s your office, turn off the phone.  Begin by relaxing your body and mind.  Systematically tighten and relax all your muscles, then take a deep breath, hold it–then release it completely, releasing all tension.  Close your eyes and take another deep breath.  Release the tension.  And again.  Allow your breathing to become deep and regular.  When you feel relaxed, allow that  special place to come to mind, where as a child you were most yourself.  Is it a wide open expanse or is it confined in some way?  Sense the size and strength of your body at the age you were when you enjoyed this place.  Are you moving, sitting, standing?  Are you alone or with another?

            Now begin to accumulate more information by asking yourself questions.  Each time you think “I can’t remember,” relax and invent an answer. Don’t worry if you are fantasizing rather than really remembering, as long as the answer feels plausible.

            Ask yourself and imagine: What do I see?  What do I feel on my skin?  What do I hear?  What do I smell?  What do I taste?  What is the light like here?  What do I want?  What do I think/ What feelings do I have?  In a minute you will write in the present tense what comes to you.  Allow your imagination to take over where memory stops as you write.  So far the scene you are describing is probably like a slide, full of detail but without movement.  Now add movement.  Turn it into a film.  See and feel yourself move a part of your body.  If you can, actually move as you would have then.  Ask yourself: And then what happens?  What do you do?  What do you think or say?  What changes?  Write whatever comes without censoring it.


(Option): On a large piece of paper draw the floor plan of the house or apartment you lived in when you were 7 years old, including the hallways, bathrooms, bedrooms, back and front yards.  After you have completed it with as much detail as you can, put it aside and find a quiet place to write a reverie about it.  Imagine yourself approaching this house the way you had to get there, from a sidewalk, driveway, up three steps to the door–however you entered.  Once inside, walk through and enter a room or place of your choice.

            Now imagine the details, furnish the room–where is the bed or table, is there a fireplace or cupboards, are there rugs or carpets on the floor?  Is it day or night?  Are there lamps or overhead lights?

            Place yourself inside this room and allow your writing to go where it will, exploring your feelings and thoughts at the age you were when you lived there, concentrating on your interaction with other people in the house.


7 thoughts on “THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL – Part 2

  1. I’m into my eighth decade now, which is to say that I’ve done a LOT of reading. I have found nothing till this post to suggest a method of committing to a story that might be able to escape pure egoism. I’m pretty bored by factual memoirs too much of the time unless I know their settings or their authors. Pure introspection risks the kind of self-centeredness I mentioned above. Maybe those of us who would like to leave even a small legacy for our descendants could manage it by following your instructions.
    Thank you.

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