Why write a bio?

Several people I know have recently written their life stories, and they all say it was a rewarding experience.

I would suggest that there are three main motives for writing an autobiography. First is to provide family and friends with a record of a life which, whether because of old age or serious illness, seems likely to be nearing its end. Some hospices offer programmes to help their patients with this, and there are commercial firms which provide a paid service. Such accounts may not be ‘well written’, or contain anything out of the ordinary, or hold much interest for anyone who did not know the writer. But they are usually much appreciated by the relatives for whom they are mainly intended – though some have the effect of reviving old conflicts, or exposing family secrets. These documents may also prove valuable to any social historians who happen to come across them in the future.

A second motive is to describe achievements or experiences of an unusual kind – surviving an ordeal such as abuse or serious illness, or becoming a celebrity in a certain field. Autobiographies of this type, some of which are ghostwritten, are more likely to be published and can sell very well. They often focus on just one period or aspect of the person’s life, rather than providing a complete chronological account. My late uncle’s book Geoffrey Guy’s War: Memoirs of a Spitfire Pilot 1941-46, which I had the privilege of editing after he died, comes into this category and I did eventually find a publisher for it. 

I don’t have any children myself, and have never done anything particularly remarkable, so none of the above would apply to me and if I ever did write my autobiography it would be from a third motive, which is to review my life in the hope of finding some meaning and purpose in it all. What have I learned from my experiences, including the mistakes I have made? What difference, for better or worse, have I made to the world? Are there any recurring patterns or themes weaving through the different threads?

At present I have no plans for such a book. I think it would be difficult to write, and the end result could seem embarrassing and pretentious. There would be some things – perhaps the most significant ones – which I would rather not put on record, whether for my own sake or that of other people. And, not having kept a regular diary all my life, there is a lot which I don’t remember – though friends tell me they were surprised to find how easily old memories did come back once they started to write.

Books in other genres, including fiction, are usually autobiographical to some extent whether their authors realise it or not. This is certainly true of my own forthcoming novel, in which the characters and events can fairly be called imaginary and yet were no doubt partly inspired by material from my own past.

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