Ever fancied writing your life story? Or someone else’s? Give it a go as it can be immensely rewarding, and absorbing. It can also sell!

Life writing is biography and autobiography. It can be chronological or it might be themed (I love the latter). Those of you who want to write a fantasy novel have now switched off. That’s fine, move on. This is not for you.

We all have an insatiable thirst for real life stories, and there are some brilliant biographers out there. One of my favourites is Michael Holroyd; his works on Ellen Terry and George Bernard Shaw are amazingly detailed (and also relate to my previous and current research areas). Juliet Barker is another fine biographer. She has written elaborate works about the Brontes. Meanwhile, Jonathan Bate has just published his book on Wordsworth which is on my ‘want’ list as Bate is an incredible teacher, writer and fount of knowledge!

Certainly, we all know of historical figures who fascinate us, or current day people of whom we are in awe and want to know more.

From literary memoirs to so-called ‘misery memoirs’, we can’t get enough of real life among those living a ‘life less ordinary’. For me, lover of the ‘kitchen sink drama’ of social realism, wanting to know people’s motivations has always been ‘my thing!’ It maybe explains why I studied sociology and psychology. My question is always ‘why?’ That’s useful for biographers and life writing, generally. All literature is about human life, but life writing is for real.

Of course, your own life may be fascinating, there may be a tale to tell, an experience like no other, or like every other but told well so people relate to it. A complex relationship with your mother or father? It’s all happened before but yours will have a specific authentic twist if told from the heart.

Here’s a jolly little quiz to see who should write YOUR life story! What I got is below, at the end …

A few questions to consider before you try it, is how you want to approach it:

  1. Is life writing history or literature?
  2. Is it objective or subjective?
  3. Should it just be factual or should it tell a story?
  4. What about if the evidence doesn’t stack up?
  5. How much research do I need to do?

Why do readers enjoy it?

1. Because we want to understand human life.

2. It offers genuine experiences we can learn from.

3. We all love a good story.

4. If well told, it can be as good as fiction.

I know that I have succeeded when people say things like this (about my latest book on Pamela Colman Smith):

I was captivated by her diverse, amazing life – made all the more remarkable that she achieved what she did as a single woman during the years 1878-1951. If I’d been around then, I think I’d have been in awe and found her fascinating (presuming I’d have been talented enough to be a contemporary)’.

What’s wonderful about that review (and I’ve thankfully had others say similar) is that readers want to know this woman, can almost see her as a friend, and feel invested in her life. That, to me, captures the heart of the life story.

The work is largely in the research, and drawing together disparate strands, but it is also in weaving it together as a story which people want to hear, engage with and feel invested in.

Who should write my life story?

I am not complaining to get Jane Austen …