Do you begin with your birth? With a description of your parents, or maybe even your grandparents?
With the first notable thing you did? With the biggest crisis point in your life, and then go back to the beginning?
While there is no single “best” way to start an autobiography, there are different approaches. The key is to find the one that works best for your story.
How To Start an Autobiography: 4 Examples
Here are excerpts showing four interesting ways that have been used to open an autobiography. One author uses his birth name to foreshadow the life that lies ahead; one paints a simple sketch of his parents; one talks about the beliefs that shaped him; and one reflects on the influence of chance. Each is different, and each is just right for its subject. Perhaps one of these approaches will be right for you! (I’ve linked the titles of each book below to Amazon.com so you can click on the “Look Inside” button and read more.)
In the opening paragraph of Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa hints at the tumultuous life that lies ahead:
Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlala. In Xhosa, Rholihlala literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “trouble maker.” I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.
In Take Me Home, singer-song writer John Denver uses only a few words to sketch a portrait of his parents:
“They met in Tulsa. Dad was a ploughboy from western Oklahoma; Mom was a hometown girl. He was in the Army Air Corps, studying the mechanics of flight at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and she had been first-prize winner in a jitterbug contest the year before. It was 1942: She was just turning eighteen, a high-school senior; and he was twenty-one.”
Chris Kyle begins his American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by listing the life-long beliefs he inherited from his family and environment:
Every story has a beginning.
Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and tradition. Values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors. I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun; life’s too short not to.
Former President Ronald Regan opens An American Life by talking about the effects of chance:
If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I never would have left Illinois.
I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go—and a long way from wherever you expected to go. For me, the first of these turns occurred in the summer of 1932, in the abyss of the Depression.
How to Start An Autobiography?
There is no single best way. The goal is to draw your readers in with your first sentences; to make them want to read more by telling them something about you that makes you and your life story irresistible. If you can do that, you’ve figured out how to start an autobiography.
Before deciding how you’d like to open your autobiography, go back and review the purpose of the autobiography and what it must contain. See: “What is an Autobiography.” Once you know where you’re headed, you’ll be able to zero in on the “right” opening more effectively.
If You’d Like to Learn More About Writing Your Life Story…
…see my “Memoir Ghostwriter” page.
We’re Barry Fox & Nadine Taylor, New York Times bestselling authors and ghostwriters. If you need help writing your autobiography or memoir, give us a call at 818-917-5362.