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Term Definition

The purpose of an autobiography is to enable a person to tell the story of his own life as he has experienced and understood it. The autobiography is, of course, different from an ordinary biography, because the latter is written by a researcher who has investigated the life of another person, whereas an autobiography is written by the person himself. The tone and content of an autobiography is thus unique, and such works are often treated as valuable historical documents. 

Details of an autobiography

Do you have any books on your shelf that consist of memories—written in the first person—from a politician, actress, or musician? Better yet, is the person who's talking about his or her life credited as the author, despite not being recognized as an author per se? What you have there is an autobiography.

An autobiography is a self-written account of one's own life. Since the subject of every autobiography is the author, the contents of such works often lack objectivity. In some cases, the author is either unable to recall—or unwilling to acknowledge—the events in question with complete accuracy, though disputes are often left to heresy or conjecture from others involved. As such, autobiographies frequently serve as platforms where the subject can reinvent the past to his or her satisfaction. Despite this, it's still a strong and popular genre.

Examples and content

Any book that recounts the life story of its author could qualify as an autobiography, as long as the contents are believably factual and the writing is done in the first person. 

Examples of popular autobiographies over the last 30 years include the following:

  • Iacocca: An Autobiography (1984) – onetime Chrysler/Ford honcho Lee Iacocca's personal account of career triumphs in the auto industry.
  • Is That It? (1986) – fundraiser/bandleader/activist Bob Geldof's life story in his own words, from humble Irish beginnings to pop stardom with The Boomtown Rats, and on to famine relief efforts as the mastermind .

While an autobiography might contain contents that some readers would perceive as stretched truths, cherry-picked facts, and white lies, an autobiography cannot, by definition, cross over into genre-fiction. No time machines, magic carpets, or space labs here; things must at least be realistic and plausible, if not entirely honest, in an autobiography.

How to write an autobiography

In order to write an autobiography, a subject might jog his or her memory banks, comb through old diaries, dig through memorabilia, and conduct interviews with friends and relatives.

A subject could have various motivations for penning an autobiography. If the subject is famous, the motivation might be down to strictly monetary factors. In cases where the autobiographer is a person who's made great innovations in a field like science, medicine, or finance, the story could serve as inspiration for those who aspire to similar levels of achievement. Even if the subject has lived a rather quiet, humble existence, he or she could still have insights on the world that—if told through a gripping narrative—would easily resonate with readers.

When the subject of an autobiography is neither a writer by trade nor nature, he or she will submit to a series of interviews with a ghostwriter, who in turn will handle the task of compiling the information into a coherent, engaging narrative.

An autobiography differs from a memoir in that the former covers an author's life from birth to time of writing, whereas the latter focuses on select vignettes from life, often told with an emotional slant or through the lenses of hindsight.

The earliest documented English-language autobiography is Book of Margery Kempe, in which the subject recounts trips to Rome and the Middle East. Written in manuscript during the early 1400s, the book remained unpublished until 1936. 

However, the first actual use of the word "autobiography" occurred in a 1797 edition of the Monthly Review, where it was suggested by British writer William Taylor. The word wouldn't catch on for another 12 years, when poet Robert Southey made the second documented use of "autobiography" in its contemporary meaning.

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