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What Is an Autobiographical Essay?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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An autobiographical essay is a short narrative that tells about some aspect of the essay writer's life. Such an essay might contain a single anecdote from the writer's life, or it may present a brief sketch of the writer's entire life. An autobiographical essay can use events in the writer's life to make some particular point, or it may simply recount the stories for the entertainment and education of the readers. Though a true autobiographical essay is a work of nonfiction, many fiction writers have published works that they present as "autobiographical" but which are, in fact, about entirely fictionalized people and events.

Whether an essay is fiction or nonfiction, the autobiographical essay style provides a valuable point of view that a writer can use to present his ideas. He is, first of all, presenting a story or series of stories about some period of his life, often mentioning the thoughts and feelings that he experienced during that time. At another level, though, he is older and able to reflect on those events from a distance. This gives him the ability to comment on what he did right and wrong, on the long-term consequences of his actions, and on what he learned from the events in retrospect. Some autobiographical essays actually explicitly separate the younger narrator as a participant in the actions and the older writer as a reflective voice.

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One interesting aspect of the autobiographical essay is the potential for bias. Though many autobiographies are prefaced by assurances that the information given is objective and factual, the reader must remember that the writer gets to select the details that make it into the essay. Given that the autobiographical essay is about the writer, it is not uncommon for the writer to selectively give details or to present situations in a way that shows the writer in a good light. Even a writer who strives for objectivity may fail simply because of he perceives the events in his life in a non-objective manner.

Many students are called upon to write autobiographical essays at some point during their educations. In some cases, such essays are merely used as practice for developing organized and cohesive essays. The autobiographical nature of such essays simply ensures that the student will have access to adequate source material. In other cases, an educator may assign an autobiographical essay in order to make a point about the subjective, and often-slanted, nature of the details contained in such essays.

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