Writing Autobiography

Working copy of my autobiography.

Starting an autobiography is easy. Finishing it… is something else.

I began my autobiography a dozen times over a period of decades, and each time it found no conclusion. Last year, while making substantial progress, I had an epiphany. I had no idea what the process should be. I start 2022 with a work plan to remedy that.

Process became a collection of things.

At first I sat and wrote about whatever came to mind, about 150,000 words in 2021. I merged this writing into a single document (with multiple backups). After all that writing, I determined another, better method was needed to write. Too much of the blogger in me was coming out in my daily writing.

I had to get a better plan written down. I began with 3 x 5 inch index cards in a rough outline of topics, one per card. I made a Word document with a more detailed outline. It included most of what was on the cards and more. Finally, after a year of writing, I wrote a Word document called “big sections” which is a list of the chapter headings. I printed it out and placed it on my white board. The big sections will change going forward, yet I developed a way to add topics as the meaning of them was discovered or developed. It took last year’s writing experience to sort out what I would include in the finished product in the form of chapter headings.

As written on Dec. 16, 2021, I made a shelf of three-ring binders to contain my rough draft. I set aside my 2021 draft document and began a new rough draft which I expect to print and place in the binders. The binders have become a storage place for documents and writing I find along the way. As I write the 2022 draft, documents in the binders will be used as reference. I expect the number of binders to increase as writing proceeds, with the printed draft in front of each chapter heading and source documents behind it.

A main challenge is to follow Robert Caro’s advice to turn every page. At present I don’t know where all those pages reside. I organized my collection of personal journals beginning with school work in 1966. I have a shelf of books which contains my blog writing since 2007. I also placed the letters written to Mother from her estate in three-ring binders. There is a significant trove of emails in electronic form dating to 1999. In a pile on a table are stacks of clippings of opinion pieces, letters written to the editor, and articles I wrote as a freelance journalist. These documents alone are a lot.

What is more challenging is the many boxes of documents and artifacts stored throughout the house. I haven’t counted, yet there are scores of them. They settled in beginning when we moved here in 1993, and I can’t say what is in them with specificity. The way they exist is not in usable form, so I’ll have to open and go through them.

I developed a discovery process to interface with source material. The idea is to methodically go through everything to decide whether it goes in the autobiography, will be stored elsewhere, or discarded. If a particular container is useful to the autobiography, I’ll write about what is in it.

The format will be what I call “rushes,” a name taken from daily rushes in the film days of motion picture making. I’ll encounter an artifact and if applicable, will write a rush, and then edit and place the rushes into the main autobiographical document. I’ve been writing rushes since the beginning of last year. This formalizes what I’ve already been doing.

Along the way, I will edit the main draft of the autobiography for continuity, grammar, spelling, and better word choices. Once the whole document is done, and I’ve examined all the artifacts, true editing will begin. This will lead to eventual publication of the work in an undetermined format, although it likely will be both on paper and in electronic format.

The first year of writing my autobiography felt productive. What I learned makes me optimistic about progress this year. I don’t know if I’ll finish the first draft this year. I know it will be better than the draft I produced in 2021. There is clarity about process, better than there was. Like any process, it will be subject to improvement as I write and learn.

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