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The Right Attitude for Writing Your Life Story

Check out an excerpt from Chapter 1 of You Don't Have to Be Famous.

You should do it.

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Write your life story.

This might be a new idea to you or something you’ve thought about for years. Either way, for any of many good reasons, the time might now be right.

It is an ambitious undertaking, an exciting possibility. But if you’re like most people, your enthusiasm is tempered by a wave of doubts.

You’re thinking: Autobiographies are written by famous people, and I’m not one of them. When I browse the autobiography section of bookstores, I do not see books written by unfamous people like me. Isn’t this a clue that I am not a member of the club of potential autobiographers? And to be blunt, when I compare myself to published autobiographers, what in the world makes me think I am worthy of a book? My life isn’t really that interesting. I don’t have that much to say. I’m not a writer, but I’ve done enough writing to know that writing is hard. I could never write a book. Even if I could write a book, no one would buy it.

These are common first reactions to the idea of writing an autobiography. It’s impossible to know how many autobiography projects never got off the ground because of them. Or how many how-to books about writing autobiography were briefly glanced through but then hurriedly put back on bookstore shelves because people are so quick to disqualify themselves. Or how many wonderful life stories have not been preserved, and how many families and friends who would have treasured those stories have been left, instead, with nothing.

The number must be very big. But I also know that unfamous people have been writing their autobiographies quietly and successfully for decades, for centuries, and they are doing it now in unprecedented numbers. They are taking classes, joining autobiography clubs, reading how-to books, or working on their own in classic writer solitude.

Like you, they feel a pull to write their life story. They recognize that it’s something they want to do or need to do, something they would find enjoyable and enriching, something with long-lasting value. They’re right. But they’re also right to consider the doubts I’ve mentioned because these doubts are not insignificant.

Like most things that are really worth doing, writing an autobiography is a formidable challenge, and the odds are against you if you dash in wide-eyed and unprepared. I don’t want you to pour a lot of time, energy, emotion, and good intentions into writing anything except the book that’s right for you, because trying to write the wrong book for the wrong reasons will lead you precisely to the outcome that would-be writers correctly dread: fast, frustrating, painful and embarrassing defeat.

This is regrettable and avoidable and shouldn’t happen, yet it happens constantly. A high percentage of writing projects are doomed before the first words are written because the writer goes in with objectives that range from nonexistent to unlikely to impossible. The sad part is that such a small amount of clarity or good advice would have chased away those wrong notions and put the writer on a course for success.

So let’s begin by looking closely at your doubts and seeing how, on examination, each apparent limitation helps define a solution that makes your goal realistically achievable.


Aspiring autobiographers complicate their prospects with two notions regarding fame and fortune. The first is that they’ll never be published because they’re not famous. The second is that they will somehow be published anyway, and will then rocket to glory.

I’ll always remember a scene from the TV sitcom Cheers in which the hilariously rude waitress Carla smacks a dithering customer with her dishtowel and barks at him, “Get on the train to reality.” Getting on the train to reality is healthy, invigorating, and even empowering, and I’m hoping you will jump aboard, starting by getting all fame-and-fortune thinking out of your head. The first step is to banish the fantasy that you are going to be discovered and make headlines as an author.

Local Man’s Autobiography Is Best-Seller:
Signs Mega-Bucks Movie Deal

School Nurse’s Story Wins Nobel Prize:
Will Guest on Oprah

These seductive fantasies flicker in the minds of all writers. But the reality is that your story is not suited for the prime time of national publication. While it happens on rare occasions that an unknown writer produces a successful novel or thriller and reaps a highly publicized bonanza, an autobiography by an unknown and inexperienced writer has virtually no appeal to publishers.

So your concern that you’ll never be signed to a publishing deal because you’re not famous is at least 99 percent accurate, probably higher. Your name has no brand recognition. You have no “author platform” (meaning unique qualities that might attract attention or add appeal to your book). Your story, while possibly very good, is not compelling enough to differentiate it from other stories—if it were that compelling, you would probably have attracted a certain amount of notice, even fame, and you’d have a chance.

But for most of us, that hasn’t happened and will not happen. So we would be rejected by publishers for the most clear-cut and fatal of reasons: Our autobiographies are not marketable.

Being unmarketable is an economic reality but not a character defect. Nor is it a character defect of publishers to insist on an affirmative answer to “Can this book sell?” Some publishers, such as university presses or small specialty houses, have different viewpoints and might be less profit-minded, but there is always a financial context.

I think we have to concede that this makes sense. If you were a publisher, you would probably not be willing to invest company money underwriting the publication of Mildred Seplavy: I Did It My Way. As a shopper in a bookstore, you would not shell out $17.95 for a copy of Leo Femish’s My Fifty Years in Dry Cleaning.

The consequences of unmarketability are so obvious, they are not even worthy of Economics 101, yet we who write are fragile dreamers and deniers of reality, always clinging to hopes of rainbows and pots of gold and a taste of public adulation. But we have to let go of this fantasy; it will only get in the way.

Right now, you may be nodding in reluctant agreement, but a little voice inside you is protesting, “Okay, I’ll play this game and pretend to accept that I’m unmarketable. But I’ll show ’em. I’ll be the exception. My book will be so special, it’ll be the one that breaks through the marketability barrier.”

But you’re kidding yourself, and I’m not going to encourage you to keep dreaming because the serious point here is that living with this illusion is not harmless. You are embracing the wrong ambition. It will confuse your motivation, point you in wrong directions, influence every sentence you write, and drastically reduce your chances of finishing. You’ll try to write the wrong book, and you won’t get far.

Book writing is a hard enough; you don’t need a huge, fundamental mistake before you even begin. You would be so much better off if you would conduct open-heart surgery on yourself right now, removing every vestige of yearning for fame and fortune and implanting instead the single right ambition: to write a good book, with no reward other than that.

Therefore, the book I want to persuade you to write is not a book you’re going to sell. You’re going to give it away free. Instead of aiming for a wide, commercial audience you’ll never reach, I’m urging you to write a private autobiography, by which I mean a book for a limited audience composed of the people you care about most: your spouse, your kids, your grandchildren, your friends, or just yourself. Or some combination thereof.

You will print it out or self-publish it in some simple form (there are many ways to do this—see chapter fourteen), and it will be the best gift you ever gave. You will put your heart into it, pour your thoughts and memories into it, and make it something that’s uniquely you and will last forever.

Later in this chapter, I’ll describe writing advantages you’ll enjoy as an unfamous writer. But for now, the point is: You’ll write a better book because you’re not famous.

Now let’s move on to another of your doubts, the one about not being interesting enough. It is true that you might not be interesting to a wide audience of people who’ve never heard of you, but you are interesting to a small and carefully selected private audience of family and friends. You’ve lived your life among them and shared your life with them. You are probably a central figure in their lives, and they are central to yours—they will probably appear in many of the scenes you’ll describe. This audience will be very interested in you.

As for your doubt about not having that much to say, I guarantee that this worry will dissolve as you begin to tap into the autobiography process. In his poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” and this turns out to be true of all of us. I’m presuming that most would-be autobiographers are over fifty, which means you have fifty or more years of memories. Even if you’re only twenty-five, that’s a quarter century of life experience to draw on. Rather than having nothing to say, you will find that your biggest problem will be controlling an avalanche of memories and material.

But of course quantity of memories isn’t the issue, and I will bet that as you examine your life, you’ll discover many memories with story quality equal to the stories of the most celebrated autobiographers. It’s all there, it’s just a matter of training yourself to recognize your best stories and retrieve them from memory.

We’ll talk later about how to do this. But for now, the point is that you have good stories to tell, and the only difference between you and members of the fame club is that their stories are on a grander and usually public scale. Alexander the Great conquered the world, and you might not be able to make that same claim, but you’ve had battles, triumphs, and tragedies, too, and the only question is whether you can make them as interesting, or more interesting, than Alexander’s. And for your private audience, you can. So don’t dismiss your life as uninteresting because it’s not earthshaking—most of the people who’ve shaken the earth are forgotten fairly swiftly, anyway, and their memories are not cherished as your family will cherish yours.


This connects directly to another doubt, the one about your worth as the subject of an autobiography. Let’s come right out and admit that you have not conquered the world; you’ve never even been president of a major nation. You have never cured a disease, starred in a blockbuster movie, or performed as a prima ballerina or a Super Bowl quarterback. Does this mean that you are an insignificant toad, that your existence has had no importance to your spouse or children or parents or friends or others whose lives you’ve touched? No, to them your story is important. There is no question that your story is worth telling; the question is whether you can do justice to telling it.

But you have doubts about that. “I’m not a writer,” you say. “I could never write a book.”

Good. Acknowledging that you are not a writer is far more positive than pretending you are one or hoping you will magically turn into one. It is a strange thing about writing that while people have no problem with the idea that they could never become an opera star or a brain surgeon, they think that if they really tried, they could become fine writers. Then they try it, and it’s like crashing into a brick wall.

So here’s a second harsh reality to go with the reality about not getting your book published or becoming rich and famous: Unless you are a professional writer, you will not write a professional-quality autobiography. But you can write a high-quality amateur autobiography.

I don’t mean amateurish—I mean amateur in the original sense (derived from the Latin word meaning lover): one who may be as competent as a professional but is motivated by a love or passion for the activity, one who engages in a pursuit as a pastime rather than as a profession.

Love and passion are not always part of the professional’s tool kit, but they can be part of yours. Combine them with good preparation, good decisions, and your unequalled knowledge of your own life, and you’ll be equipped to write something that might be far more desirable and unique than a professionally written book.

I will help you find your writing voice, select anecdotes and approaches that bring your story to life, and write honestly, interestingly, and, if you wish, bravely. Instead of being a professional writing for a large, faceless audience, you will be you telling your stories directly to people you know very well. You can collapse the usual distance between writer and reader and bring to bear all of the powers of writing in what amounts to something close to a face-to-face conversation (in which you do all the talking).

Will this be easy? Not a chance. But I’m presuming that if you’ve picked up this book with some interest in writing your autobiography, you are not intimidated—at least not prohibitively intimidated—by the challenge of writing a book.

This is important. You may have done a lot of writing and might be a good writer already, and of course this helps, too, although you may have to unlearn or alter your present writing style to deal with the first-person voice and relatively intimate narrative style of autobiography. This is not, for example, the way doctors, lawyers, academics, or business executives usually write. If you’ve spent many years in a bureaucracy, you will probably have to undergo a style-ectomy to prepare yourself for autobiography.

But whether you’ve done a lot of writing or relatively little, you probably will not be surprised by the idea that writing is hard. I find it distressing when how-to-write authors suggest that writing will be a breeze—just follow their instructions, and everything will be fine. I’ve never met a writer who would say that writing is easy, yet these how-to authors seem to think that if they tell you the truth, you will panic and run for the exits. My view, on the other hand, is that if you realize it’s going to be hard, you won’t panic when you run into the inevitable difficulties. And you won’t say, “Oh, if this is so easy for everyone else but so hard for me, it must mean that I’m just not cut out for this, so I quit.”

Writing was hard for the immortals, and it will be hard for you. And it won’t be less hard because you are an amateur writing for an audience of family and friends. Writing is an equal-opportunity tormentor.

If you’ve never written a book, I don’t see how you could not have doubts about your ability to do so. But I am telling you that the doubts and difficulties can be overcome. What’s important is to see trouble coming so you’re not paralyzed when it strikes, so you understand the predictable problems that afflict every writer, and so you know what to do to survive and keep writing. Throughout this book, I’ll try to prepare you for the difficulties and help you surmount them. But be ready for a wrestling match.

And be ready to wrestle alone. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Many writers are gregarious social creatures, but when the time comes, they can flip a switch and turn from party animals into lonely monks slaving away in cloistered cells. Some people are not built for this isolation and solitude, even for just a few hours at a time. Silence unnerves them. They require company and group support.

I mention this as a caution, and I’ll talk briefly about ways to bring other people into the process (classes, clubs, writing partners, and hiring editors to work with you). But ultimately there is no getting around the reality that writing is done solo, not socially.

And yet, in a different sense, you are not alone. There is a great heritage you can draw on for support, a brotherhood and a sisterhood of writers who’ve been at this for thousands of years, who’ve faced the same large and small writing problems you will face, and have battled through to solutions.

Writers who’ve come before you have discovered eternal truths that guide writing success as well as tricks of the trade that make the process less torturous. Others have learned from good teachers and editors and other writers and from countless hours of pounding it out, throwing it away, cursing and swearing, quitting and returning, finally getting it right. All of this adds up to a body of knowledge that reduces isolation and provides guidance and advice, encouragement, useful instruction and pointers, references, anecdotes, larger context, even moral support and spirit-raising. My job is to be your link to this heritage. Writing your book might be one of the best experiences of your life, and I am determined to help you do it.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of You Don't Have to Be Famous.

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