An autobiography is a book about a person written by that person. The word comes from the Greek, autos self, bios life, and graphein, to write. Autobiography is written with a timeline, often beginning with the author’s birth, or the birth of the writer’s parents. Facts, research, and interviews, along with letters, certificates of birth, school records or employment, may be used by the author. The writer situates the story with history, place and setting. Autobiography is a more formal style of writing, although the author may use their own voice and other writing devices in order to make the book interesting. Memoir, on other hand, is written usually from memory and does not require extensive research. Memoir writers are free to use an informal style, and they have the freedom to recreate scenes or people or events in a creative manner.
“The urge to write one’s autobiography , so I have been told, overtakes everyone sooner or later.” Agatha Christie
The word autobiography has been attributed to British essayist William Taylor. He first wrote about the word in 1797 in an essay on the emergence of writing by people who wanted to record their lives for posterity. Traditionally, autobiography was written by religious leaders, royalty, philosophers, or writers and artists. Advances in printing and the publishing field fueled the popularity of the genre during the 18th century when restrictions of printing were lifted. The proliferation of public libraries gave increased access to books, therefore giving incentive for persons to write their autobiographies. As education became more available to the public, a greater number of readers emerged, and therefore, more writers. Virginia Woolf, author of A Room of One’s Own, told how the rise in literacy began when middle-class women began to write and publish their autobiographies.
Current debate centers on the numerous autobiographies available to readers, the worth of topics, and the qualifications of the people who write about themselves. Edward Gibbon, author of The History and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, penned in his 1796 six-volume autobiography, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, that readers identify not with someone’s great works, but with minor traits attributed to all. One advantage to reading autobiographies, both for the general reader and students of history, is gaining an awareness of the world. Mark Twain wrote that his own autobiography was a mirror in which he looked at himself.
Another debate concerns censorship. Closed societies may view certain autobiographies of people as a threat, and may forbid their citizens to be exposed to historical or current events. On the other hand, global citizens may discover old or forgotten biographies on the internet, and in bookstores or libraries. The invention of electronic books, which can be accessed on tablets, computers, and cell phones, provides readers of autobiographies exposure to different lives. Anthropologists, who research writing systems, consider hieroglyphics and other symbol-based writing systems to be autobiographies because they tell the story of certain people or groups.
Autobiography gives the author the opportunity to examine their life and to enter into a journey in order to find answers to common human questions such as who they are and where they come from. To write an autobiography, the person must go back in time and search for information about their personal history. Once the ancestor’s history has been located, the author is able to situate their own story by place, time, setting and other literary devices. The quest often allows the author permission to enter into a discussion with their self and the story, much like a journalist would interview the subject of a piece for an article or other written work. The inspiration to write an autobiography may be to uncover secrets, personal or family scandals, to locate themselves within historical events, or as a method of leaving their story for posterity.
Psychologists consider autobiography valuable for personal identity and psychological well-being. J. Lenore Wright, in her book The Philosopher’s “I”: Autobiography and the Search for the Self, writes that autobiography is a method of reinforcing our unique existence among humanity, to communicate ourselves to others, to add continuity to ourselves, and make ourselves and our identity transparent to people. Autobiographical memory, events and experiences that we remember about our life, can be divided into episodic and semantic events. Wright states that our episodic memories are recollections of people, memories of what happened to us and where those events occurred, whereby we are able to remember emotions experienced during the event and the context in which the event occurred. Human-Memory.net explains in an article titled Episodic and Semantic Memory, how semantic memory gives us the ability to remember facts and general information and knowledge of the external world.
Neuroscientists John S. Simons and Hugo J. Spiers view autobiographical memory as anatomical. Encoding, storage and retrieval of autobiographical memories are all associated with the medial temporal lobe. In Autobiographical Memory, memory is composed of three categories, General Events, a focused memory; Lifetime Periods, a memory of certain periods of life; and Event-Specific Knowledge (ESK), highly detailed memories of events or people. ESK has a psychological basis that can be a template for writing an autobiography as it has similarities to composition. Originating events, Turning Points, Anchoring Events, Analogous Events, Personal Information, Reconstructive vs Copies of Memories, and Generic vs Specific are outlines for an autobiography.
In the past, autobiography had three categories. Apologia is a defense of a person’s beliefs and actions. Orations were autobiographies that were personal and not to be recited in front of an audience, but to oneself. A Confessional autobiography was written as a method to reveal the author’s transgressions and mistakes in life.
The study of autobiography has many applications to the scientific field. Research has uncovered benefits for the treatment of mental illness, elder care and for people with disabilities. In the educational field, some universities offer majors in Autobiographical Studies. In the community, writers conduct classes and seminars in the study of autobiography. Life story researchers, centers for biographical research, and guided autobiography groups are a few types of organizations involving autobiography.
Kay Castaneda, MA
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