How to write a biography

More and more normal people are writing down their lives. Where does this desire to put one’s biography between two book covers and show it to others come from??

My life as a book

Erika Bickel never thought her life was worth a book. Until she met Katrin Rohnstock. The professional biographer runs a "storytelling salon" in Berlin. A kind of neighborhood meeting of communication: each guest recites his or her story over coffee and cake. Erika Bickel, who is over 80 years old, also talked about her Berlin – after all, she has lived in the same house in Berlin-Grunewald for almost 70 years. She had lived through the war there and had a great love for a Jewish man. Katrin Rohnstock was on fire and advised: "This is what you should write down!"

Erika Bickel liked the idea: "The war scattered our family all over the world. And especially for my son, my granddaughter – my relatives I wanted to write down our chronicle."Now it’s in front of her, the book with her memories. 333 pages strong. She has had 90 copies printed. The piece at 45 euros. Almost a year of work between the covers of the book. For several afternoons she dictated her experiences into the recorder for the autobiographer. The young man typed everything up, checked the dates, names and historical facts for accuracy and sorted Erika Bickel’s story under aspects of chronology and dramaturgy. Only then did she get her life back – to read and add to: "As I read the manuscript, something new kept coming to mind."The wheel of memory was started and could easily have filled 500 or 1000 pages. "But of course you have to choose."

"You should write this down!"

Above all, the encounter with her husband – she was 18, he was 52 and Jewish – shaped her life. They love each other – and are not allowed to marry in Nazi Germany. She burns his papers: "I thought it was better not to be able to prove anything anymore." And indeed: the unexplained origin protects her husband from deportation. Even when he enlists in the Volkssturm, no one asks for papers. And then the war is over. You get married. Having a child. That dies. They have another child. That lives. Many relatives only learned about the changing history of their love, fears and tests of courage through the biography. Many relatives found the book "very beautiful. Only her son and her husband’s daughter from his first marriage "haven’t really taken a stand yet," Erika Bickel notes. The reason for this? She does not know.

How to write a biography

But she will also not ask. In telling her story, she realized that it doesn’t matter what others think about her life story. What is really valuable is what she finds when she looks back on her life: "I clarified my own relationship to all the things. Why I acted like this and not differently." Why she stood by the Jewish man, waited for him when he was a prisoner of war, instead of just forgetting him. She was only 18. Now she knows: "I would do it again and again in exactly the same way."

Make private things public

Making private things public – isn’t that conceited and vain?

The market for biographies and life stories is booming. Biographical services and publishers appeal to the older generation with storytelling salons and eyewitness meetings, looking for exciting life stories. A wide variety of service providers offered their help. With Rohnstock biographies, for example, 60 or more interested people come forward each month. The radio journalist Christiane Zwick creates personal audio books from audio transcripts about important excerpts of the Vita. And those who prefer to write their own memoirs can find courses in autobiographical writing at adult education centers and with writing teachers. It is precisely the war generation that feels the desire to record their lives in writing.

Why? So long there was silence. About war experiences. The post-war period. Hunger, waiting, fear, loneliness. But also about the moments of happiness and joy. Only now in old age does the protective wall of keeping still crumble. These people feel the desire to go in search of their own history between the turmoil of war in the telling – to clarify why they became what they are today. As if in passing, people who write down their lives also pass on a piece of contemporary history to the next generation with their life story. For each person develops in the tension between the values of a particular time, political events, social fabric. They shape the personal development, the opportunities for development.

Is about facts?

What happens when you write down your life? Is it really about facts?

What’s really magical about autobiographical writing, however, is the journey to yourself. Although people say "I’m writing my biography," in the end it’s the other way around: our biography, our life’s journey, is what makes us a written page in the first place. And those who log their lives try to decipher this text in retrospect. By writing things down, we bring meaning to all the events and encounters that have shaped our lives. We look for and find the red thread that showed us the direction up to today – although we couldn’t know our destination. In remembering the facets and influences of our life find the right place. We can suddenly see how bad things turned to good, why we acted this way and not another, what we gained in the course of our lives and what we had to do without. This feeling of wholeness, of arrival makes happy. This is what everyone who has written a memoir reports. However, the way there is also often painful.

"People also approach crises in conversations," Hamburg biographer Catharina Aanderud experiences again and again. Often it’s the first time they talk about experiences that deeply shook them. Then Aanderud benefits from her experience as a psychologist and can listen and inquire at just the right level. "That’s when I really notice how people also process something in the narrative. Perhaps you can even talk about a piece of healing."The personal biography is therefore often the first step in talking about events with the family, observes Johann-Friedrich Huffmann, head of Frieling Verlag Berlin. "One once found words. Then it becomes easier to talk about it."

Arrive and feel happiness!

Arrive and feel happiness!

The diary is the archetype of autobiographical writing. Here you accompany yourself piece by piece through your life, reflecting on your biography as it unfolds, so to speak. "People are unintentionally put events at their feet. Dealing with this is our biographical task," explains Bremen sociologist and biography expert Professor Annelie Keil. Some events are joyful, others painful. The solution of our life tasks is always creative and individual. That’s why every life story is exciting – regardless of whether it took place in politically turbulent or rather quiet times. Autobiographical writing can help people accept these life challenges. For Annelie Keil, writing in a diary is therefore also "an important health measure" that she recommends to everyone. Every life has the power to point beyond itself. The great writers such as Goethe and Schiller already knew this – almost all important literary figures kept diaries and drew inspiration for their works, which became world literature, from their own lives and feelings.

How does memory work? What could be salutary about it?

When Karin Rauh began to record everyday life with her two children, she did so first in diary-like form. In keywords and anecdotes. Only later it became a whole story, which the 48-year-old published in Frieling Verlag Berlin. "Beloved Teases" is the name of the book and it’s about the "exciting life with two special kids". While her older son suffers from the so-called fragile X syndrome, an intellectual disability with autistic features, the younger son has an attention deficit disorder (ADHD) with strong hyperactivity.

How memory works?

When I told friends about my experiences with my two boys, they often said, "You could really write a book," Rauh recalls. This was probably mainly due to the fact that the single insurance saleswoman never lost her sense of humor despite all difficulties. At some point, she really started writing down more. The sayings of the children. How the younger one blows up the lessons at school. Their experiences with the doctors. She wrote in the afternoons when the boys were still in the workshop and at school. "It was a balance and also a processing," says Karin Rauh. When her story is written down, she feels proud for the first time of what she has achieved: "People have always told me that they admire what I do. But for me, that was everyday life."

Only in retrospect does she see clearly how, even for seemingly hopeless situations, a solution was found in the end. How much progress the boys have made over the years. And she thinks for the first time, "I’ve mastered this!"She gives the draft of the book to her family to read – and they persuade her to take the step of publishing it. Frieling Verlag Berlin was immediately convinced by the manuscript, took care of the editing, layout and title, and printed it with the help of a cost-sharing contribution from the author.

"I find it very exciting to hold my own history in my hands as a book," says Rauh today. She was particularly pleased that she was able to encourage other people with special children not to hide – and that she aroused interest in people who would otherwise never have considered the subject of disability or ADHD.

Social trends

What social currents are involved in the desire to write one’s life down?

Even if Erika Bickel and Karin Rauh are taking a special path with their personal biographies, at their core they are doing something that everyone needs to do. "We have to tell other people our story so that we know who we are," explains Otto Kruse, psychologist and director of the Center for Professional Writing in Zurich. With children, this need is known and accepted: everyone finds it normal that a child needs a contact person for his or her everyday experiences. That it’s only when they talk to their parents and siblings that they understand how they can fit their experiences into their lives – beautiful ones as well as terrible ones. But even adults who do not tell their story lose the thread of their life.

And they lose contact with other people. "You have to tell in order to join a network," Kruse explains. Through storytelling we connect our stories and thus our lives with the lives of others. And the older you get, the more you have to tell to get on a network. Anyone who knows this understands why old people can’t settle into a new environment if there’s no one there who’s interested in their issues – in them, that is. You can not arrive. The door between her inner self and her new surroundings remains closed. Only their stories could open the lock and thread the I into the new we.

But this need is increasingly difficult to satisfy in our everyday lives, observes Kruse. Not only for older people, but also for the young: "Through the new media, television, film, there are very many professionally told, extremely exciting stories. About that we have forgotten the telling of our own biography." Kruse notes: "People remain stuck on their stories. Because there are too few addressees for it."

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