Autobiography: Will Yours be Fact or fiction?

What kind of autobiography are you going to write? Fact or fiction? I’ve been thinking about this issue, as the main protagonist in my current W.I.P, Under the Bed,  is writing an autobiography set mostly during the McCarthy years. Her dilemma is what “truths” to include and which to omit.

Memory consolidation

Memory consolidation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If the book is an autobiography rather than a posthumous biography, then one key factor is going to be memory.  Try discussing a long ago event with someone close, and you will almost certainly find you both have a completely different recollection of what happened, or even where it happened.

Even without deliberate intent, memory is the most unreliable witness to our lives.
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Truth or Dare

Autobiographies tend to be either serious works, or tell all. I’m dividing them into the categories of Truth (Seriously, it’s all true)  or Dare (I Dare you read this ” tell all” book) They both have their place and both fulfil different needs, just like different  genres in fiction.  The author’s all carefully chose what to include. Sometimes what’s been omitted might have given a more realistic insight. But who am I to say? Like any history, peoples lives are open to interpretation.

Behind the Lights: Music and Movie Stars

Music and movie stars lives are often filled with drama and tragedy. Some have more than most. Tammy Wynette and Liz Taylor both spring to mind.  Tammy Wynette’s autobiography Stand By Your Man, touches not only on her singing career, but also the abuse she received at the hands of her ex-husband George Jones. So while the style was light reading the subject matter was not. So, Truth or Dare?

Tammy Wynette - The Best Of

Tammy Wynette – The Best Of (Photo credit: Piano Piano!)

Elizabeth Taylor’s autobiography, was definitely under the “Dare to Tell All’ category. ( Forgive me, I don’t recall the title of the one I read in the early ‘90s). But aside from the trail of husbands, Liz Taylor’s life was also filled with ill-health and endless surgeries. Despite all she went through, she became a great champion of AIDS awareness and fundraising. Despite the “tell-all” nature of the book, it was both entertaining and interesting to hear about her marriages and how her life changed both because and in spite of them.

English: Studio publicity portrait of the Amer...

English: Studio publicity portrait of the American actress Elizabeth Taylor. Français : Portrait publicitaire pris en studio de l’actrice américaine Elizabeth Taylor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Door Stop Autobiography

Why do people feel the need to give every last detail? The doorstop autobiography that comes to mind is My Life, Bill Clinton’s autobiography published shortly after he left office. The man has certainly led an interesting life, and I loved all the photo’s he included , especially the ones of he and Hillary in their university days. But you would think with all the people the man knows, and has influence with, that a good editor would be on his list. And that’s the truth…. 1008 pages?…. Really?

Look into My Soul Autobiography

Speaking of presidents, I read and really enjoyed President Obama’s Biography – Dreams from My Father. This was back in those heady days of being thrilled Bush was out, inspired by America electing its first African-American president, and hope was still alive. It was a readable length, and truly interesting from the perspective of where the man had come from.

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What made it even more valuable, was it had been written in 1995, years before Obama became President, so it was not the self aggrandizing work it would have been if penned after the election. Rather, it showed an optimism for a better world, from the perspective of a young man trying to make sense of his heritage. It rang true with me.

 Multiple View Points.

This to me is the best kind of Biography. The only one I’ve read where this has been done effectively was about the painter Jackson Pollock: To A Violent Grave by Jeffrey Potter. The method the author used leaves “the truth” to be decided by the reader. It’s a group of interviews with people who knew Pollock . Aside from being a fascinating look at the beginning of the abstract expressionist movement in New York in the 1950s at a time when the Hamptons were a little known artist enclave, it gives the reader completely different perspectives on events in the artist’s life. It touches not only on his painting, but his alcoholism and his relationship with his wife Lee Krasner. She was an artist in her own right, but her own career was  eclipsed by the looming presence of Jackson Pollock. Frankly the guy seemed like a total jerk, but I can’t deny his innovative process which changed the landscape of experimental painting back in the day.

So of all these I mention  – how many of them are true? And how much is the style in which they are written  geared to a particular market? If the latter is the case, then does that make supposedly non-fiction works so very different from fiction?

Do you feel the autobiographies you have read have been fact or fiction? What will your autobiography be like? Truth or Dare?

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  1. Love autobiographies. If you haven’t read Cicero’s diaries yet, you should. Guess they had not invented the word biography in those days:-)

    Personally liked Hillary’s autobiography. Never read Bill’s because it seemed to long to me. Tony Blair’s autobiographty was also interesting. And we must not forget the biographyt about Potemkin and Catherine the Great as well as the book about young Stalin, both written by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Highly recommend both books. Am sure you will love them.
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    • That’s great you’re my first commentor Catarina, because I thought of you when I was writing this post.! I must read Hillary’s I’m sure it’s better than Bills, which I didn’t get too far with. Not sure I can bring myself to spend time on Stalin, but Potemkin and Catherine the Great both sound interesting. That said, you’ve mentioned Cicero’s diaries often, so I really should take a look. Have a great week & thanks for the comment Catarina.

      • My pleasure, A.K.

        The book is about both Potemkin and Catherine the Great. He wasn’t only the power behind the throne but her lover as well. By the way, what’s called Potemkin villages is a myth. Have to pity the man to be associated with something as devious as that invented by envious people at the court.

        The last and, only remaining, written account of Caesar before he was murdered, is in the last part of Cicero’s diaries.
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  2. I lean towards the biography, as opposed to the autobiography as they adapt more characteristics of a novel. Because there is a greater burden of absolute truth in the autobiography, I think they tend to be drier reading!
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) recently posted..Count Your Blessings… Where’s The Justice?My Profile

    • I enjoy biographies more for that very reason. My favorite one I think is “Prick up Your Ears’ about the playwright Joe Orton, made into a film in the late 80’s with Gary Oldman. I can’t imagine actually writing my life story, but it’s certainly a popular choice among writers.

  3. If I was to write the book of my life, it would definitely be of chocolate-filled facts. I’m sort of already doing a bit of that on my chocolate travel blog, and in Chocolatour, and really enjoy being in storytelling mode.

    I agree with you that some autobiographies are far too filled with minute details that are of no interest to anyone but the author. A bit too self-serving for my likes.
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    • That would definitely be an interesting take for you Doreen, and as you say, you’re kind of half way there already. But really , these giant tomes that people write? I just can’t believe anyone’s life is that fascinating. That said, I really must read more autobiographies, and not just stick to fiction – there really are some good ones out there.
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  4. Interesting article! Multiply view points biography I think is the better one indeed. I don’t like to read biographies too much, mostly because I read them a lot in school days. And here is another thing: there are so many hidden facts, contrary facts, made up facts…Even history on one subject is different from country to country and from time to time for sure!
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  5. I think its important to differentiate between biography, autobiography, and memoir. I gravitate toward memoir because they cover a shorter period of time in a person’s life. I really liked Obama’s memoir because it sheds light on how his views toward humanity formed. To me it was comforting to see how he came grew up as a mixed-race child of divorce in a far flung corner of the land. To me, that made his story more relatable to the general population than the experiences of dominant white male culture of past president’s. Also, memory itself is a type of lie we tell ourselves to make sense of the truth. I’m probably ripping that saying off from somewhere. When I took lots of creative nonfiction classes, a great deal of time was spent exploring how author’s render memories on the page. If the barn was really red, is it okay to make it blue to achieve some sort of narrative point and whatnot.
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    • I have always thought of autobiography in the same terms as memoir I have to confess – guess I need to do my homework. I felt exactly the same way about Obama’s memoir, and especially as you say given where all the other presidents have come from. But I’m also glad I read it when I did. I like your quote about memory, which in fact is partly what I love about writing – can’t remember? hey, just make it up. Biographies , as Jacquie noted, are much more akin to fiction. The wavering of the truth, often seems to be part of their purpose.
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  6. Autobiography, unless mainly based on research, is certainly affected by the subjectivity and selectivity of the authors’ memories. “Even without deliberate intent, memory is the most unreliable witness to our lives.” This is such a true statement and it helps to ensure that the author will be remembered by what he/she chooses to include in the book. I think most of the autobiographies I have read have been for the most part, truthful. I love both autobiographies and biographies and have often thought that I would like to write someone’s biography.

    • I think both biographies and autobiographies are very subjective, and what to include is in a way part of the fun part I imagine. But as you say, for most of the ones I’ve read there’s a enough truth there for me to actually glean some insight into that persons life, Thanks for stopping by Michele.
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  7. I like biographies. My favorite was Alfred Hitchcock because I love the movies and all of his were fabulous. As much as I love to read though, biographies are not my favorite genre. I would much rather watch a documentary about someone. I guess because I am very visual and reading for me really hurts my eyes (cataract surgery in only one, so it throws me off balance). Loved you take on all the different types! Thanks for sharing with us!
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    • Thanks so much for your comment Laurie. I have to have been recommended bio’s & autobio’s , generally speaking to read them. My love of fiction is much greater. But then I I like to keep what I read varied. What a pain (no pun intended) that you have trouble with your eyes for reading. I have to really limit my computer use, as y eyes get very sore quite quickly. Podcasts are great as well as audiobooks, but there’s nothing like the printed word. Thanks for mentioning documentaries. I get lazy about what I watch on TV, so that was a good prompt.
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  8. One of the autobiographies I read recently was by Phyllis Chesler: An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir. The beginning was like a thriller, as she relates her difficult tale. The rest of the book is a bit drier, as she gives lots of background. But I still found it compelling, as we learn a lot about Afghanistan and their culture.

    I have a tendency to like biographies of authors. Politicians? Rarely. I’d rather read Pinocchio.
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    • Yeah for Pinocchio! Dreams of My Father was my exception to the rule, and in fact the only reason we have My Life is because I bought it for my partner, who read 100 pages and put it down. The Phyllis Chesler Memoir sounds really interesting. I love novels set in different countries. I don’t know if you read Hilary Mantels “8 Months on Gazzah St”. about a period of her life she & her husband lived in Saudi Arabia. It’s a novel rather than a memoir, but one can glean a lot about the culture, particularly the women’s culture.
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  9. I hear you about how our memories are not without flaws or challenges. It is a good reminder that we must not always think of a memory, any memory, in permanent terms. It’s more the essence of it that matters to most, don’t you think?. 🙂

    I have always been a big fan of biographies. The one that first comes to mind is “John Adams”. It is constructed from the massive amount of letters between he and his wife, Abigail. The fact that they left this written history of their thoughts and lives while it was all happening certainly helps to avoid misinterpretation. 🙂
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    • Thinking of memory as being the essence of what happened is an excellent way to approach the dilemma. I used to think I had a picture perfect memory until I started having memory problems about 13 yrs ago. Now I realize that my picture perfect memory never was anything of the kind.
      It’s great to find biographies that include actual material by the person concerned, especially when it’s long past a point when anyone alive would have known the person. It certainly makes for a more reliable interpretation of the history. Thanks for the comment Susan, and hope you had a lovely anniversary 🙂
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  10. I’ve never been a big fan of autobiographies. I’m not sure if it’s because I’d rather live with my misconceptions of the people in them or if I simply don’t care to know that much about folks I don’t know in person. Having said that, it should be no surprise that if I were to write an autobiography it would definitely be a work of fiction. 🙂 Something after the style of “Big Fish” or “The Adventures of Barren Münchausen”.
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    • Thanks Debra – you’re actually the first person to say what their own biography would be like! So great that you were up front, and I like your idea:-) I haven’t read too many biographies myself, but when I come across a good one, I feel I “should” ‘ read more. Perhaps it’s just non-fiction in general that would fit the bill. I’ve tried short exercises of trying to fictionalize a personal experience , and it’s actually quite difficult. Not sure I could manage a whole book. Thanks so much for stopping by.
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  11. I have recently written my autobiography which I consider to be a memoir. It is more a collection of stories and little anecdotes about my years as a pilot and flight instructor and flight school owner.
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  12. I usually start reading Autobiographies with enthusiasm but get bored halfway. I prefer fiction . If I were to write my autobiography -it would certainly be a work of fiction !!

    • Thank you for persevering to get your comment through Mina. Most appreciated:-)
      I generally do prefer fiction, and certainly autobiographies can have a tendency to lag a little in the middle. For me the key is to be really interested in the person I’m reading about. Thank you for stopping by the site.
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  13. If my biography is written I would want it to be fact. I have been in some funny/crazy situations. I know I’m not done yet.
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    • You are only the second person to address their own autobiography. Sounds like you’ve seen a few things worth telling. It’s amazing how many people don’t believe their story is interesting, and then you ask a few questions and they’ve done all kinds of great stuff. Good to see such a positive attitude: “I’m not done yet” that’s how I feel too. Thanks for stopping by.
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  14. I can’t do fiction so I guess mine will be fact that is obscured to protect the innocent.
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  15. I like the type of book where “the truth” is to be decided by the me (the reader.) I like it when the Author just gives me the facts and lets me decide. Great writing on your part, first time commenter, but not the last. Thanks, Brandon.
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  16. I don’t think I’ll ever write my own autobiography. Not that interesting! My late husband wrote his memoirs. You can quibble about the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. He didn’t write a “personal” memoir. Instead, he just told the story of his life from the age of 17, when he was drafted into the Army until he completed it in his late 70s. Yet, the honesty comes through and the personal highs and lows flow naturally. It is a memoir that someone could read who didn’t know him. Of course, now that he’s gone I cherish it even more.
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  17. I have to admit I didn’t read all of Bill’s but I borrowed it from the library and read chunks of it as time allowed. It gave some interesting insights into the man and into Hillary for that matter. Given his very public adultery I’ll have to admit hiss take on her interested me. He considered her the smartest women ever and was very candid in saying in many ways she’d make a better president. I’d never read Hillary’s but I’ m sure it would be interesting. I’ve read one of Obama’s and it was interesting too.

    Your book sounds as if it will be fascinating.

    • Thanks so much for your comments Pat. I’d have to agree with Bill on Hillary making a better president. She’s certainly paid her dues now, and would def. be ready. I hope my novel will one day be finished and in the hands of a publisher. I have almost finished the final edit.Very happy to hear it caught your attention. Thanks for stopping by the site:-)
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  18. I had to laugh at the “doorstop” variety of biography/autobiography–I have a biography like that of Charles Dickens that’s been on my shelf for years, and I can’t quite imagine that I’ll ever bring myself to read it! Speaking of presidential biographies, though, I really enjoyed Franklin and Eleanor, which was really more of a biography of their marriage. Really fascinating. Also enjoyed Laura Bush’s memoir/autobiography, Spoken from the Heart.
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    • There really is something about such a huge book that is offputting. Even if it’s a novel. That said, Anna Karenina is one of my favorute novels of all time so… Thank you for mentioning Franklin and elanor – I’ve been meaning to read more about Eleanor Roosevelt for a long time. Thank you for stopping by the site:-)
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  19. I don’t seem to lean towards any style in particular. I tend to find if the person has had an interesting life and it is told well (hopefully warts and all) then it should make for a good read.
    I do know that I would not take on the Bill Clinton book, just because of the length of it!
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    • I usually go either by a recommendation, or as you said, because I’m interested in the person involved. I do tend to find enormous novels intimidating, and while I can see a biography of a persons entire life being worthy of 1000 pages, only into ones fifties, seems a bit of overkill. Thanks for stopping by Becc:-)
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  20. It’s been a while since I’ve read an autobiography. And truth 🙂 be told, I never thought about the different types.

  21. Well autobiographies aren’t for everyone. I certainly prefer fiction myself. But occasionally an interesting one will come along that makes me want to read it. Thanks for stopping by:-)
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