There's a big paradox in effective autobiographical writing:
It's that it must be both unique to you as the writer and central character, and yet it must also be relatable—meaning that you must communicate your personal experiences in a way that resonates with others, as if your reader had been there with you in the moment.
Balancing those two aspects can be difficult.
When a piece of writing is too universal or too well known to the reader, then it becomes a cliche and reveals little or nothing about the writer as an individual.
On the other hand, if a piece lacks that relatable quality, then there is no way for the reader to share in the experience of the writer; the piece feels dull and abstract as a result.
Each year I see both problems come up in students' college essay writing.
Just last week, I had a student (let's call her Jenna) come to me with two separate drafts of what might be personal statements.
Jenna's first piece centered on the death of a beloved aunt. The language and some of the details that Jenna used to paint the scene were poignant and poetic—I remember a great anecdote about gifting a set of salt-and-pepper shakers that hilariously turned into something like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie. The problem was that shortly after that, I found myself feeling like I was floating in space; there wasn't anything that tied those sensory details back to the writer's internal experience. I felt like I was on the outside looking trying to look at something I knew was supposed to be meaningful for the narrator...but I didn't really know why.
Jenna's second piece had the opposite problem. It was a whirlwind of the many ways in which Jenna takes in the world around her, from photography to journaling to breathing in the spices wafting on the breeze in an outdoor market. While I, as the reader, have had my own versions of those experiences in my life, when I finished reading, I didn't know what distinguished Jenna's experiences from mine. There wasn't enough detail to make the piece uniquely memorable.
I share Jenna's story because I think it highlights the need for three essential components in any effective (and affective) autobiographical writing: concrete details, an angle, and reflection.
You've heard the old advice "show -- don't tell," right? Using concrete sensory details in your writing -- including some dialogue here and there -- invites the reader into the scene. Their imagination activates and they can feel as if they're standing right there, taking in everything that you were experiencing in that moment.
We're not using this word in the sense of a hidden agenda; you could just as easily think of it as your "perspective" or "filter." Your angle is where the external details meet your internal thoughts and feelings. It can be the unusual way that you define "leadership," your individual take on required community service hours, or your surprising reaction to your required summer readings. In short, this is where you begin to put your individual spin on the details you include, and set yourself up for looking back and putting your more immediate reactions into a broader context. Which leads us to...
This is the point in your writing at which you fully take a step back and consider how your past experiences have informed the person you are at this moment in time, and the direction you think you're headed in the coming years. The quality of reflection in your writing directly mirrors the quality of your personal growth, and gives meaning to the perspective and details that you've chosen to highlight about your past experiences.