The Best Interviewee Ever: You! Interview Yourself for Your Autobiography

Before You Were Born

To set the scene on the incredible subject of your life, you could consider beginning before you even existed. Even if you decide against this, it’s essential that you know as much as possible about the world that you were born into. This information can then be referenced as you write to give readers more context.

What stands out about your family? Are there any noteworthy/eccentric characters?

What stories are passed down through generations?

What kind of upbringing did your parents have? Working class? Strict? An unfamiliar culture?

How did they meet? What challenges did their relationship face?

How were they impacted by the social/political status quo?

Early years

You might plan to write your whole autobiography from memory—you’re the authority on the subject after all—but speaking to the people who know you is a great source of information, and it could lead to interesting revelations. This is especially interesting if you choose to cover your baby and early childhood years. But make sure that you are selective in your choices. Look for defining, original stories, specific only to you. Think about how this information relates to the adult you.

What have you been told about your birth?

What kind of baby were you?

Do you know about all of your firsts (words, steps, etc)?

What are your earliest memories?

What stories do your parents tell about your baby years?

How do these stories relate to the person you became?

Childhood

When exploring your childhood, again, be selective and self-analytical. We are essentially gazing into the depths of the footsteps that led up to the person you became, so choose your episodes carefully. A chronology of childhood landmarks is far less compelling than a series of events selected for their pertinence to your development.

When was the first time you became aware of …

            … the lure of your future profession/passion?

            … death?

            … injustice?

            … the way you differ from those around you?

            … the hidden depths/true nature/hypocrisy of the people in your life?

What events were fundamental in forging your outlook on life?

What episodes in your childhood are noteworthy for their dramatic or entertainment value?

How are you going to make readers laugh or cry?

How are you going to make readers care about you and your life?

Adolescence

What kind of teen were you? Well-behaved? Rebellious?

Who was your first love?

When was your first kiss?

What were your passions?

Who were your teenage icons?

How did you spend your time?

How did your academic career unfold?

How did you relate to the people in your life?

How did you perceive yourself and the world?

How did you see your life unfolding, and how does that compare to the reality?

Adulthood

As you move into adulthood, it is even more important that you are selective about your content, as you are dealing with so many years. The mistake would be to cover every era in equal detail, perhaps opting for a few chapters for each decade, when some years and decades are always more compelling, interesting, informative, heart-breaking, etc. than others. This is doubly true if you are tailoring your autobiography to a certain market and there is great interest in certain aspects of your life.

When you look back over your life, which events stand out as your …

            proudest?

            happiest?

            saddest?

Which moments of your life have …

            taught you the most?

            changed you the most?

            surprised you the most?

What is your biggest regret?

What is your greatest accomplishment?

What has made you the person that you are?

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer @hayleystories

Nervous First Interview with the Subject of My New Ghostwriting Project: LGBT She-Ra!

I contacted ‘LGBT She-Ra’ a few weeks back to see if she would do me the honour of sharing her life story, to potentially create a memoir together. I should add at this stage that ‘She-Ra’ is not her real name. It does, however, reflect what an absolute warrior she is – a warrior of the heart.

She-Ra was thrown out of the Navy for being gay in the seventies and went on to love fearlessly within the confines of a relationship that was destined to always remain a secret, even from those she loved the most, even after her partner’s death a lifetime later. She is a hero and her story fascinated me. So why was I nervous?

I had met She-Ra already on a number of occasions and we had clicked well, which is half the battle won. I was excited to hear all about her life, I had set up the Zoom meeting, got my snacks, notebook and flask of tea ready (I panic when if I don’t have easy access to tea), but I was fidgety. Excited, but unable to settle.

I think it’s because I had been proactive and approached her – it’s usually the other way around – and she had taken a while to get back to me. I assumed that I had overstepped the mark in some way, that I was hoping for too much from her, because asking someone to trust me enough to share their entire life story is massive. I was asking her to lay herself bare, to think about painful memories that she may not have wanted to revisit, to speak her truth, however difficult that may have been. When she finally got back to me, however, she was far from offended; she was just surprised that anyone would care about her story. She’s a sixty-seven-year-old woman now. Why would anyone care about her experiences? It’s funny how we’re blind to how incredible our own lives have been.

So, I was satisfied that she was happy, but it didn’t stop me twisting myself up in a knot, obsessively trying to make sure that the whole experience was okay for her. I created a framework to make her feel safe, deciding that we would speak for just an hour at first, so she would see it as a finite process and not feel stuck with me. I wrote a bunch of prompts and questions, nothing too intrusive to begin with, mostly sticking to her timeline, and she could elaborate when she felt comfortable. I didn’t want there to be any uneasy silences where she felt uncomfortable. And I would make sure that we ended on something positive, rather like the way a counsellor ends a session. She lives alone now, and we’re in lockdown; I didn’t want to send her away with the weight of her own grief or injustice on her shoulders.

I told my girlfriend all about my welfare provisions, and she gave the pat on the head that I always need when I’m being a bit weird, and at 6.30 p.m. she appeared in my waiting room and I welcomed her onto my screen. After a few minutes of pleasantries – a discussion about lockdown hair and our mutual experiences of past crew cuts – she said, “So how do you want to do this?”

Referring to my notes and the rigorous plan I had to control the environment and every second of our exchange, I told her (relaxed, like!) that I thought we could start with a rough timeline.

“Well,” she enthused. “I was born in 1953 …”

Two and a half hours later, she was still talking. She had taken me through her childhood and the navy years, with more bravery than She-Ra facing off against the shape-shifting Catra on the smoky plains of Planet Etheria (Thank you, Google!).

I needn’t have worried at all, and at the end, when I thanked her, she couldn’t believe that she had spoken for so long either. She’s normally a listener.

“I guess I’ve lived my whole life in secret,” she told me. “I want to be heard.”

So, this week, I am grateful for LGBT She-Ra, for not only being an absolute gift with her honesty and ability to articulate her story, but for reminding me of how important stories like hers are, and how privileged I am to be in a position to listen to them and pass them on … Oh, and that maybe I just need to chill out and trust that everything will be okay.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer

@hayleystories

What’s the Difference Between an Autobiography and a Memoir?

Autobiography, from the Greek Auto (self), bio (life) and graphein (to write), is a book written about one’s own life. Distinguished from a biography, which is an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

Famous autobiographies include:

The difference between an autobiography and a memoir exists within the scope of a book. Autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject; they might employ structural devices that take you backwards and forwards or even start at the end and finish at birth, but they ultimately tell the story of an entire life.

Memoir, from the french mémoire, is generally concerned with specific incidences or eras (e.g. a war memoir). Although background may be given to other periods, the focus is thematically placed on an aspect of life rather than life in its entirety.

Natalie Goldberg calls it “The study of memory, structured on the meandering way we think.” As such, a writer has more freedom to explore within this genre. She continues, “Memoir doesn’t cling to an orderly procession of time and dates. Rather it encompasses the moment you stopped, turned your car around, and went swimming in a deep pool by the side of the road.”

‘Who’ is the centre of an autobiography; we know the author – he or she is a politician, a celebrity, an icon of some kind – and the book gives access to the complete details of their life, where they came from, how they got where they were, the troubles they have faced.

‘What’ is the focus of memoir; we often don’t know the author, but they have experiences to delight or horrify us, for us to learn or recoil from.

Examples of great memoirs include:

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer … @hayleystories

Two Walnut Whips in the Library: An Unexpected Encounter Among the Bookshelves

I recently watched a man drink a whole bottle of salad crème in the library, and there wasn’t a salad leaf in sight. Straight from the bottle. Glug, glug, glug. To me, this epitomises libraries in the twenty-first century: a catch-all for those in freefall from the community services and projects that have been cut by the government, looking for a place to belong or snooze or drink condiments. As a writer, obsessed with people-watching, I love it.

It’s possible to work in the separate study room in absolute silence, away from those who have drifted in for weekly colouring-in, reminiscing or language exchange groups, or simply to have arguments with their partners at full volume, and I do this when I’m close to a deadline, but for most part, I can’t resist dropping myself in the centre of this vibrant soup of people, most of whom would be surprised to learn that you can borrow actual books from the library as well as charging your phone. It’s gold, and I don’t want to miss a moment.

There’s also the food issue; the staff in the silent study area are particularly unforgiving and appear at your desk like riot police at a crack house at the slightest sniff of a cookie or a crisp. Sirens have sounded and ejector seats flung for lesser crimes than a rogue sandwich. And I love to eat while I work, which is exactly what I was doing last Wednesday afternoon – working in the noisy part of the library where no one says a thing if you bring a portion of chips, a tub of ice cream and a flask of tea in with you. And then I saw him. The milky-eyed man from Hong Kong.

I’m quite good at zoning the hum of conversation out and getting to work, but I’m less able to concentrate when my curiosity is on fire, and this old guy had every synapse in my brain glowing. Spread out on the table in front of him was an array of goods – books and newspapers, a KFC sandwich and coffee, some kind of dispenser shaped like a house, two multi-pack boxes of Walnut Whips, crisps, and a stuffed bag for life that I would have loved to rummage through. But it was more the arrangement that stood out: sprawled, as if this was where he lived now. And it was the way he interacted with it; he would bite the sandwich before replacing it precisely, glance at a book before returning it, and slowly move around before taking his seat again. Then he would gently rest the side of one hand on the palm of the other, like a knife on a chopping board, close his eyes and disappear into meditation. I couldn’t take my eyes off this strange but peaceful creature.

And he’d spotted me looking.

“Wrong number!” he laughed as he hovered by my table and pointed down at my phone. By now I was texting my partner about him.

His eyes were glowing as he smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help laughing at his humour and the open, warm way in which he had made contact. I was in love with him already.

He returned to his seat after a short exchange, and I continued texting, but when I looked up, he was standing over my table once again with a Walnut Whip in each hand – one mint, one original. Again, his face was so peaceful and full of kindness.

“For you,” he offered and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head.

I’m vegan, but I was genuinely touched and didn’t want to insult (or bore) him, so I thanked him profusely and happily took the gift. I know enough people who love chocolate.

“I wish I had something to give you in return,” I told him, taking a mental inventory of my bag, genuinely wishing there was something in there other than my notebook and a box of tampons.

“You don’t need to,” he smiled. “It’s not Christmas.”

Gift accepted, we quickly moved onto getting to know each other, and before I knew it, he was sitting with me. He told me that he had moved from Hong Kong with his father when he was thirteen and had been in town for the last forty-five years. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock and impact of being separated from your homeland at such a young age. He told me about the Opium Wars, Hong Kong independence and how good the chicken was in the buffet restaurant just down the road from the library. An old school friend was murdered near there a few weeks ago, but I didn’t bring it up.

He then asked what I did, and I told him that I write people’s life stories. I may have been imagining it, but curtains twitched on a few other tables when I said this. Everyone has a story to tell.

“You should write my life,” he told me. “My life has been exceptional,” he added, and I knew that he was telling the truth.

I looked down at the two Walnut Whips sitting on my laptop, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to write his life story and send it out into the world for posterity. I was giddy with love for him and all the tales he had to tell, and before I could stop my hand from doing it, I had scrawled my number on a piece of paper and arranged to meet him at Costa on Monday. The sensible part of me was already backpedalling, and I explained that I work on so few project that there was only a slim chance that I could do anything for him, publishers are only interested when there’s an exceptional angle, and not all life stories are sellable, but I couldn’t deny that I would love to spend an hour with him and hear his story, and he seemed happy enough with that. I was happy too.

So, this week, I am grateful for the man who drifted over with the two Walnut Whips in the library, made me smile and booked an hour to tell me about his life. I look forward to discovering what Monday brings.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

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She Cried When She Read the Book: An Emotional Ghostwriting Experience

‘Jenny’ first contacted me to edit her domestic violence memoir. She is a passionate woman with so much to say on the subject, following nearly two decades of abuse. She is now dedicated to conveying a message of hope and survival to other victims and building awareness of a subject that is all too often diminished and ignored. It is an important book on so many levels, and I was honoured to work on it. I learnt so much and realised that I was blinkered on the subject in a way that she is at pains to highlight – a victim of domestic violence is not a certain type of person; it is a man or woman who met a monster after dark that refused to let them go.
Jenny told me that she was dyslexic and suffering from PTSD. Writing the book had been a difficult experience for her.

Her determination shone through in the writing, but there were serious issues with the book. She had been incredibly brave to open her laptop and let her fingertips loose on her suffering, and it had naturally flooded out of her in a steam of consciousness. Consequently, it was powerful but muddled and difficult to follow. And there were other issues: she would often abandon the narrative to tubthump the issues surrounding domestic abuse, dragging readers out of the moment and away from her story – a story that conveys her message so much more powerfully than repeated rhetoric; she was also (understandably) guarded with what she was prepared to reveal, often leaving out the most revealing elements of her experience; additionally, she veered toward ‘telling’ her story rather than ‘showing’ it with concrete description and vivid language that draw readers in, so it wasn’t coming alive on the page.

As a writer, my focus is on the experience of the reader, and although this is a painful true story, it is still a story, and I could see how it could be told in a way that would keep readers turning pages. Her focus was, justifiably, on her own experience, so it often felt as if there was a wall between her and her readers.

I told her my concerns, but she had concerns of her own: she didn’t want to simply write a survivor memoir: her scope was wider than this; she didn’t want to bring readers too close to her experience; she had a message that she was determined to deliver; she also had a fixed publication date, and time was scarce. I went ahead with the edit, as agreed, but it was challenging, and I struggled to return it, knowing that it still needed so much work. So, alongside the edit, I compiled a report, containing recommendations, suggestions and pages of questions to help fill in the blanks that the original draft had left me with. The result? Unfortunately, I completely overwhelmed the poor woman. I felt terrible and wished I had simply left her to publish the book. But how could I?

When she came back to me after that, she was beginning to see the merit of what I was suggesting, but she was still completely overwhelmed. It was at this point that she asked me to write the book for her. Time was short, but I knew I could bring it to life and produce a book that honoured her experience while serving as a lifeline to other survivors.

I was excited to work on such a rewarding project … but then she told me that she wanted to see my output every day – every day! – and my bubble burst.
I’m used to having a free rein to produce a first draft, which can then be edited. I felt like I was in chains before we had even begun. However, I am a great believer in pushing my own boundaries, placing myself in situations that are difficult (and that I often don’t like) because this is how we grow. And I respected Jenny’s need to maintain control of the project. It was her book after all.

The result exceeded both our expectations, not just in terms of the end result, but with regards to the process. I would send my copy to her every day, along with a page of questions that would help me proceed, and she would send answers and feedback. Very slowly, the trust grew between us, and she began to feel safe to reveal more of herself and share details that were painful but vital to the narrative. As difficult as this process must have been for her, she would often tell me how much she was enjoying it, and I felt so proud that she was finding it therapeutic and even healing. It was amazing to help her after everything she had suffered.
The energy and compassion of our exchange shines through in the book, and she cried when she read it for the first time. She was so grateful that I had managed to capture this difficult chapter of her life, and I was so proud to have been of service to her. I am truly blessed to be on this path.


Twitter: @hayleystories

Domestic Violence Support, call 0800 2000 247