Strategies

Two obvious strategies for writing life stories present themselves, one inductive, the other deductive. The inductive method would involve the following activities: Make a list of what you would call the important events in your life: confirmation, high school graduation, reading a particular book, making a new friend, etc. Tinker with the list until it seems a reasonable representation of your life and then start writing—anywhere about any incident—and keep writing to see what themes or patterns emerge that you didn't predict. Take one of these themes or patterns and make that your theme.

If you want your life story to be strong and meaningful, you will need to discover, fabricate, or invent a theme that shapes the story and somehow gives insight into who you are today and what you stand for: your passion for order or for art, your inability or your readiness to commit, etc. In short, when writing an autobiography, you deliberately select a focus and supporting detail from among the many possibilities to give an external shape and meaning to your life. Remember, your writing will never be your life, but only one of many representations, which explains who you are and how you got there.

To write deductively about your life, you reverse the process and begin as if you had something to prove: you start with a theme that seems to characterize your life: your competitiveness or insecurity; your need to be in control or believe in something; your decision to become a teacher or an astronaut; your fascination with words or insects. Your writing then begins to explore this theme, as you deliberately bring to mind all those elements that seem to support this pattern, ignoring incidents that don't help develop your point about yourself. Again, your aim is to fashion a version of your life both believable to your readers and reasonably true to your own conception of things.

Every time I've begun to write about a piece of my life the inductive and deductive have gotten mixed up: I begin to write deductively, believing there is a pattern, and find many elements that are important but don't fit. Then I end up writing inductively to discover what the new pattern may be. But I accept that as one valid way to go about this difficult writing task, perhaps more realistic than either of the one-dimensional modes.

While it is unlikely that college students will be asked to write full-fledged autobiographies, they may be asked to write more sharply focused memoirs or self-portraits to learn more about limited dimensions of their lives. Consider, for example, assignments I call language autobiographies and self-profiles.

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