Writing Your Own Autobiography: The New Persistence of Information

How A Biography Gets Written

When someone sets out to write a biography, they don’t just pick up a pen and start writing. A good deal of research has to happen before the author can begin writing. Usually, the biographer will dig up letters, books, news clippings, articles and anything else they can find to, from or about the person who’s life they’re chronicling. The more famous the person, the easier it is to find information, because obviously there’s a greater public dialogue available regarding this person.

An autobiography, on the other hand, doesn’t take nearly as much research. In fact, the most difficult part of an autobiography is organization and brevity. Deciding which life experiences are most valuable, most defining, most characteristic of your life—that’s the really difficult part.

The New Media

Suddenly, all of that has been turned on it’s head. Ours is the first generation whose entire life has been permanently recorded and made available for future generations. An overwhelming number of people from our generation have made intimate records about themselves and their lives publicly available online: where they graduated from college, what movies they enjoy, what they think about the current state of the government, who they are currently in love with, what they do with their spare time. But isn’t just blogs or social network profiles. Photo sharing sites give us a snapshot into their lives. Video sharing sites bring us back in time, if only for a few moments. And even those who are not directly creating a record for themselves can be found in a friend’s articles, pictures or videos.

With this new prevalence of information and persistence of media come new questions: What will our children and grandchildren think of us? Or will the signal-to-noise ratio be so high, the overwhelming flood of information so great, that it’s availability will be rendered moot? Google taught us that in this great and golden Information Age, whoever can harness the information will be king. But perhaps our children will have no incentive to even search? Can we do anything to be sure that our life will not disappear into a vast ocean of zeros and ones?

The Balance: Trivial Vs. Significance

The key to writing your own autobiography is to strike a balance between trivial and significant. The fact of the matter is that our lives are not always interesting. We brush our teeth, get caught in traffic, fight off the flu and balance our checkbooks. Everyone does these things, they’re a part of life; but they don’t make very good reading material. Sometimes, however, amazing and terrible things happen, things that shape us, that shake us, that test our core beliefs. These usually make really good books, but outside the context of our everyday lives seem fantastic or pretentious.

So how do you talk about reality without going off into platitudes? One way is to examine plain, bread-and-butter happenings in significant terms. E.B. White gave perhaps the most striking example of this with his powerful essay, The Death of A Pig. A pig he was trying to nurse back to health died. A dead pig is a non-event for a farmer; but the story evokes such a strong reaction because White speaks in universal terms. You may not care about giving a pig an enema, but everyone cares about death. The key is to make the most important thing the most important thing. In other words, don’t let your story run away from its significance.

On the other hand, be sure to ground your greatest moments in reality. For one thing, no one likes a person who has never struggled. In fact, most people don’t even believe a person who has never struggled. What inspires people is realizing that they’re not alone; it gives them hope and the ability to press on through their struggles. I think that’s one of the reason people are obsessed with tabloids. Seeing the picture-perfect Hollywood queen without makeup and Photoshop lets us breathe a sigh of relief and empathize with her for a moment. “She really is just one of us.”

As The Journal Goes, So Goes The Autobiography

Let’s speak practically for a moment. How does this work out? Do I wait for significant moments in my life before writing—the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a world adventure? Or should I write constantly and record all the petty details of life, hoping to substitute quality for quantity? Yes.

I think there is a place for both of these, so long as you are able to organize them well. My initial answer was “the first” because unfortunately most people don’t organize and as a result what we had for dinner last Thursday gets the same treatment as the funeral of a close friend. If one is truly more significant and meaningful than the other, how do we make the distinction? I’ve not been completely successful, but I have attempted to create a system of weighted journaling using various tools.

Email usually addresses highly specific and individual issues. Much like letters, my email chronicles dialog between myself and other people. Instant messaging is also highly individual, but much less formal than an email. The topics discussed can often be weighty and significant, though they’re often not. Anything particularly significant from my email or my instant message will usually find its way to my blog or my journal. My blog is a place for discussing technology and design. My journal is a place where I can write about love, faith and other miscellaneous topics. Both of these are generally more substantial than my Twitter, which is basically a mini-blog where I write about anything that strike my fancy. (Think of it like Luther’s Table Talk) Del.icio.us keeps track of my favorite links, iTunes keeps track of all my favorite songs and Facebook keeps track of all the rest. I’ve not yet set up a complex system for my photos or my videos; though I imagine as that information grows, so will the need for a better system of organization.

Your Online Activity = Your Autobiography

One last thought: you are now writing your autobiography. While we were left to fill in the blanks about the lives of our great grandparents—to peruse old letters, make conclusions from hastily scrawled notes—our great grandchildren, however, will not have that problem. If things continue as they have been, what you are writing today on your blog, in your email, publishing out to the Internet, will become your autobiography when you are gone. With that in mind, perhaps you should stop and think a minute before you pick up your pen?