In my English class, I’ve recently been reading a ton of slave narratives. I noticed in those books that they’re incredibly detailed, even way back into their early childhood. How they remember that far back is mysterious, but I know that I can help my future self and take notes on my life now. That way, if I write an autobiography in the future, I will have the materials necessary to do so, way back to age 14. That isn’t as far back as the slave autobiographies go, but it’s better than starting at age 20 and going forward. There are some things that I can do while taking notes that would help even more, such as describing the scene, paying much attention to the many details of the more significant events.
Describing the scene of the event is critical in any autobiography. For instance, if someone told a tall tale without scenery, it would be impossible to understand. Little Red Riding Hood with no woods or Grandma’s house would be confusing. And tall Native American tales would be nonsense. Under the same principle, writing an autobiography without a background would be even worse, especially if the writer moved around a lot. So taking notes on what’s the scene is especially useful.
But there are still five questions: Who, What, Why, When, and How. The “Where” is taken care of by the scenery. “Who” is not very necessary, beyond the intro. “What” is probably the next most critical thing, past “Where.” And that’s also the body of an autobiography. The “What” is all the adventures, the possibilities, the storyline itself. If there is no “What” then there is no story. All that’s left is an intro of the character and the scenes. There is no action. Think of the “What” as the acting in a play. Without it, there is just an intro of the characters, an empty stage covered in a bunch of props, maybe some music, occasional curtain drops, and some more props. Without any “What,” there is nothing! The character intro is useless because the characters never appear beyond that; the accessories are worthless because there are no characters to use the props and stage. The music is just annoying because there is no suspense, or heartbreak, or joy, or anything else associated with a good play. That is what should get the most attention: the necessary information. The plot, in short.
Also, if the details are scarce, it’s a problem of believability. Without minute details, the story seems vague, possibly made up. And the first time the reviewers decide that it’s fake, the book is doomed to fail. But don’t put too many details in, like Henry David Thoreau. He filled two single-spaced pages – describing a tree! If the details are too numerous, the book becomes longer, the blocks of descriptions look menacing, and the reader is effectively scared away. It’s a balance – not too much detail, and not too little.
“When” is also a key element. A time range is necessary if the exact date is unsupplied. If the year is missing, the reader has no idea when the story happened, and that can, again, raise a believability issue. No date equals no proof, no proof equals no trustworthiness, and no sincerity means the book is back in the library.
Everything else is relatively simple—the How and Why are to be figured out by the reader once the book is published. Those are inferred from the scene and actions of the characters. In other words, the writer doesn’t have to deal with them because he can’t control them. Only the readers can do that.
So each of the Five W’s and the believability is solved by taking meticulous notes, which can turn into a good autobiography. The fundamentals are:
~ When, and
And that’s all anybody needs to make a biography or autobiography, even the ex-slave writers of the 19th century.