What do you need to think about when writing biographies and autobiographies?

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Answered by: CORINNA, An Expert in the Biographies and Autobiographies Category
If you're thinking of writing biographies and autobiographies, it's important to keep in mind that our lived experiences not only teach and shape us--they inspire and inform our writing. So I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and use myself as an example.

My parents were Jewish refugees from the Nazis who raised me as a Quaker at the first historically black college/university in the country--Lincoln University--where my father taught. If that seems like a mouthful and you're still chewing on it, you're not the only one: I chewed on it for much of my life before I could fully metabolize it and understand what it meant to me and about me.

As a child, I was almost totally isolated and insulated from the world by Lincoln's rural location in southeastern Pennsylvania. We were smack dab in the middle of cornfields and farms and the rolling countryside for which that part of the country is known--and not much else. Moreover, the surrounding community was racially hostile, and most facilities in the nearest town, four miles away, were still segregated.

So our little university community became a tightly-knit enclave, and it was full of fascinating and brilliant people. For example, Thurgood Marshall, who was a student at Lincoln, was said to have brainstormed in faculty homes about ways to end school segregation. So it was a very rich environment to grow up in, and it nourished me in many ways.

I didn't realize then, of course, what a unique and vibrant place it was. Nor did I realize for a long time that I was white and my friends were black, or that I was Jewish. Those identities belonged to a world I wasn't aware of yet.

But once I got out into that world, I understood pretty quickly that I had been given a very special gift. I had been given a quite extraordinary foundation for metabolizing the experiences I've had since then, and I had been imbued with a deep appreciation and respect for all individuals and groups of people.

I had also been given an unusual way to think about identity and a unique perspective that I bring to my work if it's relevant. And it *is* relevant to writing biographies and autobiographies and memoirs because it's part of the fabric of my being, and it informs how I come to life and to living. That enchanting and magical place, with its tiny but astounding community of incredible people, infused me with its joyous and indomitable spirit, which has, like a beautiful song, been the accompaniment to my life.

I wouldn't trade it for anything. And I bring it to my writing--possibly to more of it than I even know. So when you think about writing biographies or autobiographies, it's helpful to think about your lived experiences and how they will affect not only what you write but what you see--in other words, how you see what you are writing about. Be aware of it, use it consciously and judiciously. It's what makes you, you.

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