The story of your life? Get it in writing

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The Independent Online
Anyone who is thinking of getting his or her life story down on paper and doesn't know how to start should invest immediately in an invaluable booklet called How to Write Your Autobiography, published by the Inland Revenue. This neat little volume is packed full of hints on how to marshal the facts of your life, and even more important, how to organise your life before you get round to writing the book.

"Never throw anything away" seems to be the golden rule of the art of autobiography, if the Inland Revenue can be believed. "You will be amazed at how much the merest scrap of paper can reveal," it says. "Let us say, for instance, that you have a faded receipt for petrol from some motorway service area. Your instinct is to chuck it in the bin. But wait a minute! That petrol receipt will tell you exactly where you were at what time, on what day. It will tell you that you were not at home but were out on a long trip somewhere. With luck, you can reconstruct the story of one whole day from one receipt!

"We at the Inland Revenue often have to do the same. For instance, someone might claim petrol bills against tax. If we looked closely at them, we might find that five or 10 of them have the same date on them, and the same garage name. Odd, that. Why has someone got 10 receipts for petrol from the same place? Could it be because he has been driving up and down that road, constantly running out of petrol at the same place? Or could it be because he picked up lots of other people's receipts at that garage and tried, no doubt in error, to pass them off as his own?

"A thing like that tells you a lot about a person. And to take care of telling details, and to make sure they are not lost, we cannot stress too highly the importance to the future autobiographer of keeping all documentation. In a big cardboard box. In files. In desk drawers. Anywhere, as long as you keep them and, of course, don't try to alter the figures on them."

The booklet also stresses the importance of keeping a record of people you meet and work with.

"How often do you hear absolutely fascinating stories from people you employ round the house, plumbers, stonemasons, builders and so on? You could make a whole book out of those stories. In fact, some people have - think of A Year In Provence, for example! But wouldn't it be tragic if you tried to remember the name of the man who had told you such a great story, and you couldn't, simply because you'd forgotten to write it down. So, make it the simple golden rule to always get a written receipt from every person you employ, with all the details - even if he would like to be paid in cash! In fact, especially if you paid him in cash ..."

The Inland Revenue also stresses the importance of the little personal touch in the art of autobiography.

"So much can be revealed in these little incidents," says the booklet. "Let's say, for instance, that you get a taxi to Paddington and ask the taxi driver for a receipt to cover the journey, which cost pounds 5. Now, what if the taxi driver says, with a wink, `How much shall I make it for, guv?' Or if he gives you a whole handful of blank receipts and makes it clear you can fill them all in at your leisure? What would your reaction to that be? The answer can be very revealing - so write it all down!"

The booklet ranges over the whole of life and its important aspects - travel, family life, work, entertainment, etc - and is especially good on activities done under an assumed name. It covers the momentous moments of life ("Ever done a big, big transaction in cash? Let's hear about it!") but is not ashamed to encourage gossip about the small things ("Ever heard some discreditable but fascinating things about famous people? Let's have all the details - you can't shock people nowadays!"). But the four big lessons in autobiography are spelt out again at the end, in case you haven't got the message:

1. Get everything in writing.

2. Don't throw away or hide anything.

3. Don't get any help with your autobiography from some smart-arsed accountant who might encourage you to store some of your life's details overseas.

4. Get everything right in your life story, because if you don't, you might go to prison for a very long time.

`How to Write Your Autobiography', published by the Inland Revenue, price pounds 15.99 (or from me for only a tenner).

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