Who are you? How have your experiences shaped your sense of what is important or possible? Realize the benefits of using writing to reflect on your life. Read exemplary autobiographies and write about a significant, unusual, or dramatic event in your life.
Autobiographies are stories that people write about themselves. These stories can be factual accounts of significant, unusual, or dramatic events. They can be remembrances of famous or interesting people. And sometimes, when people slip from fact into fiction, they can be fictional stories, what some writers call “faction.”
Why Write an Autobiography?
As we age, we invariably wonder who and what experiences shaped us. One of our most elemental impulses is to define and explore the self. We try to understand who we are and who we can be by examining how we respond to different situations and people. Sometimes we wonder what other people think of us and wonder why we behave the way we do. Sometimes we are perplexed and feel inner discord because our self-images don’t fit with what other people or society seem to expect of us. When we feel the urge to make changes in our lives, we often find that reflecting on our experiences is a prerequisite for change. As Abraham H. Maslow remarks in his thought-provoking book on human development, Personality and Motivation, “One cannot choose wisely for a life unless he dares to listen to himself, his own self, at each moment of life.”
Not all autobiography is about expressive writing. As illustrated by the sample readings, people also tell stories about themselves to sell products or motivate people, to entertain, and to persuade people:
My role in society, or any artist or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all -John Lennon
In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself -Alfred Kazin
People write autobiographies for many reasons, and they employ a variety of media while addressing diverse audiences. For some, such as John Lennon, autobiography is a social process, a way of reflecting on our culture, while for others, such as Alfred Kazin, autobiographies are a deeply personal genre, a tool for internal reflection and personal growth.
Diverse Rhetorical Situations
The most common purpose in a brief autobiography or profile is to depict an important challenge or event in the author’s life. Writers of autobiographies may hope to entertain readers or to educate them. They may hope their story helps readers understand the lives of others who come from different backgrounds.
Alternatively, writers may seek self-understanding. They may tell personal stories about important moments in their lives. For example, they may author a cultural autobiography, which is an autobiography that examines how elements of the culture they were raised in—family, friends, church, schooling, community—helped to shape their identity, their sense of what is possible, and their perception of what is important. Some authors may assume a false voice, writing a fictional autobiography with an assumed persona.
Autobiographies usually employ a strong personal voice, using the first person; they often employ many of the techniques of story telling, including hooking the reader with a compelling introduction, dialog, showing rather than telling, and using rich description.
Typically autobiographers do not rely on secondary research (library or Internet research) or primary research (questionnaires, interviews, or ethnographies). Instead of focusing on the lives of others, external research, or reviews of others’ writing, autobiographers are focused inward, questioning who they are, who they can become, and why their world vision is what it is.
A college education can increase your ability to analyze experiences, to empathize with others, and to understand how cultural assumptions shape behavior. One of the primary reasons for becoming educated is to learn to evaluate your beliefs and to question how others may be trying to manipulate you. Perhaps more than any other medium, the blank page offers you the best opportunity to examine your assumptions and to explore the conflicts in your life.
Because autobiography involves reflecting about who you are and why you make decisions, you may not see immediately how autobiographies relate to typical academic writing, which generally focuses on subjects other than the self. On a practical level, however, autobiographical writing engages many of the same thinking strategies required by other forms of writing. For example, when writing an autobiography, you will probably explore causes and effects, hypothesize about developmental steps, and perhaps even persuade a reader about the rightness of your actions.
More importantly, on a broader level, we should note that all writing—all knowing—is to some degree autobiographical. Without personal relevance, much information can seem inane and trivial. Writers routinely draw on their personal experience to select topics. Most educators agree that we learn best when we relate new information to what we already know, and some experts in writing theory believe that expressive, autobiographical writing plays a part in all writing, including academic writing. Others argue that the personal voice should be present even in traditional academic discourse, that knowledge and argument are always personal.
Sampling of Rhetorical Situations
Rhetorical Analysis of Online Readings
Consider the context, audience, purpose, and media invoked by the following readings. Also examine how ideas are developed in these texts. Are assertions grounded in personal experience, interviews with authorities, questionnaires, Internet and library research, or empirical research? How does the writer’s choice of media influence the shape of content?
- In a first year seminar course at Sonoma State University, Suzanne Toczyski explores how her Polish-American upbringing shaped her identity [Suzanne Toczyski’s Cultural Autobiography].
- To help understand “Exceptional Human Experience,” people write and share autobiographies at the Exceptional Human Experience Network.
- Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Benjamin Franklin reflects on how to evolve as a person and on events in the new world.
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Frederick Douglass writes about the cruelties of American slavery.
- The Diary of Anne Frank, a German-Jewish teenager, wrote her diary while hiding from the Germans for 25 months during World War II. Frank’s diary has now been translated into 67 languages.
- Daily blogs are becoming exceedingly popular. People like Jason Aleksandr Kottke, a Web designer in California, have created daily online blogs that have attracted significant numbers of readers. Jason’s site also features a webcam that lets you watch him write. Jason has also archived his blogs over the past three years.