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What is an Autobiographical Essay? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:57 Writing Guidelines
  • 1:50 Examples
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

In this lesson, we'll explore the definition and purpose of the autobiographical essay, including some famous literary examples. We'll also help you develop some tips for writing your own autobiographical essay.

Definition

Unlike a biography, which is a true account of someone else's life, an autobiography is a focused account of a writer's life told from the writer's own point of view. Autobiographies fall into the nonfiction category.

Autobiographies are typically written in the first person, and use the pronoun, 'I', which makes it easier for the writer to reflect upon and provide some perspective on life events.

Although autobiographical essays can be an abbreviated summary of an entire life, they usually focus on a certain accomplishment or experience. Their purpose is to educate, entertain or illustrate lessons learned retrospectively. As works of nonfiction, autobiographical essays are expected to be accurate, as well as creative and expressive, so that readers remain interested. Readers will only care about the writer's life if he or she is emotionally invested.

Writing Guidelines

When writing an autobiographical essay, either for a class or for potential publication, there are three basic criteria to keep in mind.

First, because an essay is shorter than a novel, focus on one aspect of your life, such as a job, your family or the loss of a loved one, and dig into it. Use the essay to embrace mistakes and show readers what you have learned.

Second, make your writing clear and focused, and only include those details essential to your story. For example, if you're writing about your marriage, do not go onto a tangent about your childhood pet.

Third, keep in mind that, even though you are writing about true events, the essay should still read like a story. Start with a catchy lead-in, develop your characters and plot and finish with an ending that leaves readers thinking.

Examples

After gaining literary fame, Jack London published an autobiographical essay in which he describes the struggles he faced growing up with no means and lofty ambitions, entitled 'What Life Means to Me', written in 1905. Let me read you an excerpt.

'…I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak. I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel-house of our civilization. This is the part of the edifice of society that society chooses to ignore. Lack of space compels me here to ignore it, and I shall say only that the things I there saw gave me a terrible scare.

I was scared into thinking. I saw the naked simplicities of the complicated civilization in which I lived. Life was a matter of food and shelter. In order to get food and shelter, men sold things. The merchant sold shoes, the politician sold his manhood, and the representative of the people, with exceptions, of course, sold his trust; while nearly all sold their honor. Women, too, whether on the street or in the holy bond of wedlock, were prone to sell their flesh. All things were commodities, all people bought and sold…'

By writing about his past self, London was able to reflect on his struggles and the horrid conditions forced upon the lower class. Notice how London dissects his emotions, such as his fear and repulsion when confronted with poverty. Instead of just writing 'I was poor,' he paints a picture of poverty and helps readers understand his emotional state.

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