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What You Can Learn from Autobiographies in Writing

There is arguably one genre in literature which can help you discover more about yourself and the world: the autobiography. It is, in a sense, the literary equivalent of a self-help book – a road map for your personal journey through life. While self-help books can often come across as fluff pieces – here to make you feel better about being human! – autobiographies can be brutally honest yet highly entertaining. They can also be a fascinating insight into the human experience. Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane and consider the various lessons you can learn from the greats of literature who have graced the world with their stories.

Lesson One: Life Is What You Make Of It

The first lesson you can take from the greats of literature who have written autobiographies is that life is what you make of it. It’s up to you! With this in mind, let’s revisit the opening chapters of Autobiography of a Face, by Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s brilliant and iconic debut novel is often touted as the literary equivalent of the 1960s. It was, in fact, first published in 1927, long before the literary world was fully gripped by the so-called “golden era” of the Roaring Twenties.

In the novel, Virginia Woolf’s Simmons (the eponymous “face”) reflects on her life over the course of a single day in October 1923. The opening chapters are an all-time classic in the genre of literary autobiography. Here, Woolf demonstrates a unique combination of observational detail and artistic craftsmanship which earned her both critical and popular acclaim. At the end of the day, Autobiography of a Face is arguably one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

The author’s mission, Woolf explains in the novel’s introduction, is to “give the impression of walking through a London street. She does this by showing us the various people, the cars, the carts, and the cycle tracks.” In a nutshell, Autobiography of a Face is quintessential “slice of life” literature, focusing on the minutiae of daily existence and, in particular, the female experience during the golden era of the Roaring Twenties.

Lesson Two: Be Brave And Take Initiative

Another great lesson you can learn from the literary greats who have penned autobiographies is to be brave and take initiative. Whether you’re starting from scratch or in a completely different life position, seize the day and go for it! Perhaps the most famous story of this type is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written in 1818, the classic novel heralds the “modern” era and introduced readers to the exciting world of science and invention. While science and invention were once considered dangerous and fantastic ideas, today, we take them for granted. We can also begrudgingly admit that Mary Shelley’s classic novel helped lay the groundwork for modern-day science fiction.

This is a world populated by innovators and pioneers who didn’t mind putting their minds to the test and seeing what happened. In Victor Frankenstein, the eponymous scientist risks his life to bring to life his synthetic “monsters” (including a “grandfather” and a “daughter” who are both terrifying in their own right). These are exactly the sorts of individuals we need to be emulating if we want to live happier, more fulfilling lives. Frankenstein was certainly not the first novel to highlight the dangers of scientific research, but it was likely the first to show its results with realistic and terrifying consequences.

Lesson Three: You Are Never Too Young To Be A Hero

A third important lesson you can learn from literary greats who have written autobiographies is that you are never too young to be a hero. This is especially relevant today, given that Autobiography of a Face was first published 100 years ago. In the novel, narrator Simmons reflects on her life and, in particular, her youthful spirit and sense of adventure – two unavoidable and precious facets of being human. In her early twenties, Simmons went on a voyage around the world which lasted for two years and gave her the opportunity to travel to many exciting destinations. The girl with the fresh outlook on life was determined to live her life to the fullest and knew exactly what she was doing. As Simmons declares in the novel’s opening pages, “I wasn’t going to waste my twenty-two years.”

There is something wonderfully rebellious about a young woman who is proud of her youth and doesn’t mind showing off her (often) scantily clad figure. The golden era of the Roaring Twenties was, in many ways, a reaction to the ravages of World War I. The conflict had torn the veil from society’s preoccupation with shame and secrecy and, in turn, inspired a newfound desire for freedom and self-expression.

Lesson Four: Surround Yourself With Supportive People

Another key lesson you can learn from literary greats who have written autobiographies is to surround yourself with supportive people. This is just as important today as it was 100 years ago, especially since many of these individuals wrote their autobiographies at a time when “being yourself” was not something we always looked forward to. In fact, many of the “celebrities” of the day were, in one way or another, self-conscious about their appearance and wanted to change something about themselves to become more appealing. These were the individuals who helped to elevate the status of the “ordinary person” and made being “yourself” not such a bad idea after all.

The members of “The Lost Society” (a group of writers and performers – among them, Somerset Maugham, Duncan MacGregor, and Margaret Sterne – who met at a Bohemian “skimming club” and dedicated themselves to ridiculing the British Class System) helped to change the face of literature. Through a series of brilliant satires, “The Lost Society” shocked and excited audiences with their hilarious take on “high society.” In their autobiographies, they reveal a side of themselves which was, in many ways, a criticism of the facade that was “high society.”

Lesson Five: Find Your Niche

A final important lesson you can learn from literary greats who have written autobiographies is to find your niche. It is easy to be clever and to try and cover “all the bases” and “do everything” (even if you “supervise” an entire globe!). However, sometimes, this is more “counterproductive” than “helpful” and, in the long run, can end up hurting you more than “helping” you. This is because, at some point, you will “overextend” yourself and, as a result, lose your “identity.”

Take the case of Rumer Godden. The “celebrity chef” helped to redefine “haute cuisine” with her innovative recipes and unique style. She also launched her own “chef de cuisine” school in Paris in 1958 and, in 1964, opened her “first restaurant” in London. In 1968, she became the “chief cook” for the Royal Wedding Celebration, preparing food for the “royal family and their guests.” Over the next few years, Godden enjoyed great success and became one of the most recognizable faces in “the culinary world.” In 1973, however, at the age of 44, Godden “retired” from active cooking and, in her own words, “decided to explore other avenues ‘in retirement’ – including ‘pastry cooking’ and ‘baking.’” She now specializes in “baking and decoration using traditional French techniques,” preparing elaborate “treats for friends and family.ʼ” She is now 79 years old and continues to delight followers of “The Curious Culinary Chenille Cake Society” with her delicious creations.