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Example of Short Autobiography

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“Why has this woman writ her own life?” asked Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in her autobiography of 1656, which is generally taken to be the first secular autobiography in English by a woman.

Why would anyone tell the story of his or her own life? Perhaps in an attempt to avoid oblivion by setting down their person and leaving it to the world. The idea of being an account of a life for posterity is shared by biography and autobiography alike. A good biographer will attempt to answer questions about the subject’s nature, about what the lasting importance of a life may be. There is some objectivity here: a biographer will look at a life as a whole and from an outside standpoint in an attempt to glean what truths they are to be had from the vagaries and vicissitudes of a life. But for the author of an autobiography no objective point of view is available. While both biographer and autobiographer may both suppress elements of a their subject’s life for whatever reasons – perhaps for not fitting with an consistent picture or literary plan – traits of a character may remain hidden to an autobiographical subject.

Of course, there are things of a person’s life no biographer may ever know, but these are generally things that could be known in principle. Biography concerns itself with the limning of another person, its subject matter is the observable life of an individual, or at least that which is in principle observable, that which should yield to intensive and intrusive scholarship. Autobiography, however, faces the notorious problem of self-knowledge. We expect from an autobiography not only accurate recollections of the events of a life, but an honest insight into a mind: the thoughts and sensations – the consciousness – that accompany these events. We also often find in autobiography a search by the subject for what made them what they find themselves to be. But even where an author’s goal appears to be that of truthfulness, how much faith can we have in their ability to achieve it? Perhaps the process of life writing – of writing one’s own life – is flawed. Let us briefly consider some general characteristics of the genre.

Biography has been around as long as there have been people to tell about. One might even speculate that accounts of the actions of real people necessarily predate fiction. But we should note that accounts of great actions are especially prone to exaggeration, and so the line here between fiction and fact is not clear. Indeed, some of the earliest surviving stories – those of the Old Testament, the epic of Gilgamesh, or Beowulf for example – purport to some extent to be accounts of actual people, with consideration given to the genealogy of the hero. Autobiography, on the other hand, in the sense we take it today, can effectively be traced back to the fifth century and Augustine. Herodotus gives us some autobiographical sketches in his Histories, but Augustine’s Confessions is the first proper work where the subject is its author, a story of a life. However, what we really find in the Confessions is the presentation of a model servant of God, rather than Augustine “himself” (ignoring for the moment what “himself” might mean). There are accounts of events apparently from the author’s life but these are so deliberately crafted for the purpose of expounding issues of Christian theology that it is likely that much of what we are told is not actually an account of the life of any real person. Therefore, perhaps the defining point in the history of autobiography is the work of Michel de Montaigne. In his Essays of 1595, we find for the first time a focus on the “individual”.

Part of Montaigne’s purpose in his essays on so many aspects of the mundane was to approach the world in which he found himself through himself: he felt that “nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion”. Montaigne’s project was to examine himself as an individual in order to better understand the world. Augustine’s examination of the self was universal: his work was to prescribe the model Christian. The didactic impetus of the Confessions is common to much autobiography and where there is such a plan to a work of autobiography it makes less sense to talk of the truthfulness of the life’s account since the agenda of the author is to instruct, and truthfulness is subordinate to this intention. But what we must note is that the central rhetorical conceit of any non-truthful autobiography of this form is exactly that it is an autobiography, that it is the story of a real life.The mode of autobiography has a psychological or philosophical dimension that requires an author to balance the deeds of an active public self with the thoughts of a contemplative private one. It also demands that the author have an awareness of an audience. This point importantly distinguishes autobiography from diary or journal writing, and we should remind ourselves that we have been talking of life “stories”. Autobiography is an account of a life that is framed for an audience, whether or not this is an audience the author is clear about at the time of writing. The fact alone that an author is writing for an audience forces us to recognise an agency behind the writing: with autobiography we can legitimately talk of an author’s purpose in a way that would not make sense if we were reading a private journal. (This may be an oversimplification. We may imagine a private journal in which a writer wrote for an imaginary audience although the journal was never intended to be read by anybody other than its author. The imagined audience here would make questions of agency relevant.) It is with an audience in mind that the idea of an instructive autobiography must be taken. The audience is encouraged to learn from the author’s life, perhaps to take up a new moral cause, or be pushed towards a spiritual development. Montaigne’s work might also be seen to be instructive, but not in the sense that it could be read as a sermon. The instruction here is the example of a subject examining himself for the sake of understanding the world. In this case it is important that the subject be seen to be an individual, in contrast to the universal “self” of the Confessions.

Reflecting much of this, the critic William Spengemann has argued that autobiography has shown a unique capacity for registering changing cultural conceptions of the self. He suggests that we view the history of autobiography in three sections, each period exhibiting a different form of the genre: the historical, the philosophical, and the poetic. So called historical autobiography is typified by accounts of the development of the author, the autobiography is essentially the telling of the process of a life’s events. Again, these events may not be strictly factual, but they are presented as if they were. We are invited to accompany the author on a journey as they develop spiritually or in some way towards “wholeness”. Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a classic example of this. The second form, the philosophical, places emphasis for the first time on the mental processes of the individual, and is concerned with the epistemological issue of how we know our “self”, indeed, of what the “self” could meaningfully be taken to be. Wordsworth, for instance, structured his “Preludes” according to periods of selfhood – different periods in time occupied by the same individual – drawing attention to the continual identity of the self through time. Thirdly, the poetic stage is characterised by the recourse of autobiographical authors to poetic self-expression. The tendency is to subordinate truth in favour of poetic self-invention. Consider works such as James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. Both are strongly autobiographical but pretend to be fictional narratives. The typical form of the early period has been inverted: rather than a fiction that is claimed to be autobiographical, we have what is in effect an autobiography that is written as a novel. Indeed, in the modern period in general, the line between novel and autobiography is no longer always clear.

We shall return to this third form of autobiography later, but we should first consider in more detail what the problems inherent to life writing are. In all we have said so far, there has been a preoccupation with the notion of truthfulness: to what extent is this story a story of the author’s actual life? The critic Shari Benstock claims that autobiography is self-defeating: there can be no meaningful question about the accuracy of an author’s account of their life since we cannot know ourselves to any accurate extent. Of course, we can distinguish between fabrication and veracity at the level of action, that is, whether or not an individual did certain things, but when it comes to questioning motives or thoughts, notions of truthfulness become troublesome. Benstock’s thinking draws on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis involves the interpretation of complex – often linguistic – symbol systems. In Lacan’s revision of Freudian psychoanalysis, he associates the identity of an individual – the unconscious self – with “the Other”, the locus of self-referential meaning and the subject of a person’s self-reflection. But the Other is just that: an irretrievable aspect of our unconscious. The goal of self-knowledge is intractable since there is no way of circumscribing the unconscious; what may appear in a moment of intuition disappears before conclusions can be reached. Lacan is clear about this irreconcilable split: “the unconscious forever escapes the subject who presumes to know, but who is, unknown to himself, mired in misapprehension and delusion” . The unconscious can only make itself available through a linguistic labyrinth. The practice of psychoanalysis is the symbolic interpretation of a subject’s utterances (in the widest sense) in order to learn as much as we can about the unconscious, Lacan’s Other, or simply the individual, the subject. But the unconscious has already, through dreams or slips of the tongue, proceeded by interpretation. An analyst’s interpretation can only reflect this. The Other is available only in terms of the allusive effects of language, which can only be interpreted again within language. There is no way out. Lacan talks of a “mirror stage” in the development of an individual wherein a subject assumes the identity of the unified image reflected back at him from outside. One does not know themselves through self-examination but through the assumption of this reflection of their character.

Turning back to autobiography, we must immediately see the relevance of these ideas. For Benstock – perhaps following Hegel – an autobiographical work is an attempt to reclaim the self, to know the self through consciousness. But this of course assumes there is a self to know. It would seem that Lacan has proscribed autobiography as truly honest account. Rather than returning a more-or-less faithful representation of a pre-existing self, the mirroring process in fact constructs the self. What can be known of the self is simply a fabrication that the subject fantasizes as real. Autobiography has long used the mirror as an analogy for the self-reflective process of autobiographical writing, but by this conceit “autobiography reveals the impossibility of its own dream: what begins in the presumption of self-knowledge ends in the creation of a fiction that covers over the premises of its construction”. The subject of autobiography must strive towards the “false symmetry” of the mirror, a unified self, which can only ever be a fiction.

Within the genre, masculine autobiography seems particularly guilty of this fallacy. Benstock points out the typical characteristics of the autobiographies of men – indeed, of autobiography as a whole in the early periods of the literary form – with the observation that the masculine subject claims a universal “I”: the subject confidently presumes a unity of the self. In contrast, feminine autobiography is typified by a challenge to this unity; a feminine subject is often fragmented, inchoate, and prone to dissolution. We are also more likely to witness the presence of repressed psychic realms. Male autobiographies tend to “seal up and cover over gaps in memory, dislocations in time and space, insecurities, hesitation and blindspots” whereas the female acknowledges the disparities of the unconscious. Citing Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writings, Benstock notes the disconnected nature of the author’s memories as evidence of the “futility and failure” of life writing.

At least the mirror fantasy need not be perpetuated. But where does this leave us? Faced with the impossibility of honest autobiography perhaps we are pushed back into the realm of fictions. Returning to the idea of fiction as autobiography we might consider the work of the late nineteenth century American writer Kate Chopin, and in particular her novel The Awakening. After considerable success as a short story writer – at a time when writing was only just considered a respectable past time for women – Chopin ruined her critical reputation with a novel detailing a woman’s longing for sexual and personal emancipation. Chopin’s work had always tackled daring subjects, such as adultery and the celebration of female sexuality, but in breaking stylistic and thematic grounds with The Awakening, she was deemed by the male critics of the time to have become dangerous. The novel was banned in an attempt to stem the influence of damaging immoral literature in America. But Chopin deplored the staid subject-matter of her female peers and immediate predecessors, seeing the suppression of this “dangerous” material as being unfaithful to the feminine self. Many of her influences were from Europe where writers such as Maupassant were setting the trend for non-judgemental discourse on subjects like adultery. In this new literature Chopin found “life, not fiction, for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making”. Edna Pontellier, the heroine of Chopin’s novel, sets out to “look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper under current of life” and what Chopin wanted to achieve was to “record, in her own way, and in her own voice, the terra incognita of a woman’s inward life in all its vague, tangled, chaotic tumult”.

With this demand for honesty, for psychological truthfulness in an author’s portrayal of their subject, we also return to the project of the Romantics with their epistemological demands on autobiography. The difference is that the subject is no longer the author, but a character in a novel. Perhaps Chopin places autobiographical features in her heroine – in fact, this is probable given her desire to present as accurate a depiction of a woman’s struggle as she could and given her own experiences of repression by Victorian husband and society. But this does not alter the point that however autobiographical it may be, it is not passed off as autobiography. Note also Chopin’s reference to the “vague, tangled, chaotic tumult” of the self; she recognised the fragmented nature of personal identity but set out to capture it through artifice. In the final climactic scene of the novel an apparently omniscient narrator describes Edna’s thoughts and emotions in the third person. If truth is what is required perhaps the objective standpoint is necessary. In fiction an author can present a character as accurately and as true-to-life as needed since this character exists entirely within the author’s imagination: every thought, every emotion is known – is created – by the author. With writers such as Chopin and Maupassant, who were determined to present characters as truthfully as possible, we have representations of real people.

Is it not odd to claim we can only have an honest representation of a self through fiction? What about in our present television culture where shows such as Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey present people with all their defences down, revealing more about themselves than many autobiographers have done. Television such as this taps into an aspect of biography and autobiography that we have not touched upon. In an audience’s desire to witness the details, however sordid – indeed, the more sordid the better – we see our culture’s appetite for voyeurism easily sated. Curiosity in the often intimate details of another’s life has long been an attraction. But are the people who appear on such “reality” television shows – though they may be struggling against anonymity and oblivion – really getting to tell their true story? There is very little that television does not show – we see people caught on camera displaying themselves without inhibition. But what it is easy to overlook here is that we are still not free of the concept of audience and author, the important difference being that the authorial agency is no longer entirely that of the person whose life is being told. Television shows are edited so that the story presented is the one that the producer wants to tell, and this is rarely the same as what the person whose story it is thinks it is. Again, we have the story of a life manipulated so that an honest picture is denied us.