An Interview with Tristine Rainer


Tristine Rainer is the author of The New Diary and Your Life as Story; both books are important volumes in personal writing libraries. She has answered several questions that LifeJournal posed about writing an autobiography. Below are Ms. Rainer’s responses:
Q: Your book Your Life as Story focuses on writing a New Autobiography. What do you mean by the term “New Autobiography?”
A: The New Autobiography is a twentieth century liberation of the genre of memoir. It is a form of creative non-fiction that has become very popular in the last five years. No longer the exclusive privilege of the famous or infamous, the luxury of established writers, or simply a hobby for grandparents, New Autobiography is available to everyone. It is a redefinition of who may write about their lives, whom they write for, the reasons they write, how they write (using all the literary devices of fiction), what they write about, and what they do with the writing.
Q: How do you begin the task of writing an autobiography or memoir?
A: There are many ways to begin. As a memoir coach I find that some people without a plan start writing memories that develop into little stories. They come to me when they have accumulated a number of such pieces and we begin by looking for the story and themes in what is already there, much like assembling the overall pattern of a quilt.Some writers begin by asking themselves important questions, such as why do I want to write about my life? Who might benefit from it? Who is the intended audience?

Still other writers begin by using the exercises in my book, Your Life as Story, especially the exercise on page 42, to discover the shape of the story they wish to tell, the unique myth that has been at work inside the life.

Q: How do you recommend people use journals as a tool for writing an autobiography/memoir?
A: Generally I suggest that you read through the journals to jog your memory, but that you not try to edit the diaries into a narrative. The voice of the journal will usually be different from the POV [point of view] of the self now. If you have recorded actual conversations and descriptions you may be able to use some of this material. Journals can add concrete details for a memoir, but usually will not give you the coherence of theme and story that require the super-imposition of narrative structure.LifeJournal has some features that are helpful to a journal writer who wishes to tackle an autobiography. The search function allows you to follow your relationship with a particular individual, for instance. You might be able to see the story of a relationship by just reading through the entries about the selected person.

For some writers, especially those who begin with the quilt method of assembly, it could be helpful to use the Life History Timeline to record memories as they come to you, often out of chronological order. Once you have accumulated individual scenes on the timeline, you may want to read through them chronologically to see if that helps you detect a narrative.

Q: How does writing a memoir serve as a tool for understanding one’s life better?
A: Writing a memoir allows you to focus on the shape of your life’s path and learn from its encoded wisdom. When you use the tools of The New Autobiography you may also have the experience of perceiving your own life as a writer would, of seeing your role as the hero of your own story and appreciating the inherent mystery, complexity, and coherence of your particular, once in all time, journey
Q: What advice can you give to someone who is writing his/her autobiography?
A: Join or form a memoir group. A number of such writing support groups have self formed around the country in which people use Your Life as Story as a text, much as people formed groups at one time to work through the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.Also discover what published memoirs are in the subgenre of memoir you are writing, e.g. vocational memoir, spiritual memoir, childhood memoir, personal essay, etc. You will find a list of the different “genres of the self” on the Center for Autobiographic Studies website ( along with published examples of each. If you read the work of memoirists who have struggled with the form of writing you have chosen, you can learn from their techniques.

Most important, understand that writing a memoir is a profoundly transforming journey, best written from the point of view of present wisdom. It can be an emotionally consuming experience, so it is valuable to pace yourself and to acquire a knowledge of craft in order to prevent emotional “flooding”.

Tristine Rainer is the author of a seminal and definitive book on journal writing, The New Diary, how to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativity (Tarcher/Penguin Putnam) 1979 that is still in print and has sold over 200,000 copies. Her book Your Life as Story, Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tarcher/Penguin/Putnam) 1998 has been used by many writers who have recently completed memoirs. She is a professor in the USC Masters of Professional Writing Program and is the Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies in Pasadena, California. You can learn more about the Center by going to the website (