Checklists for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

To write a memoir, you have to carve out a few minutes each day to make progress. Despite the apparent simplicity of this requirement, many, if not most, aspiring writers consistently find it difficult to prod themselves to act.

The problem is that at any given moment there are a thousand other things to do, and in order to write, you need to convince yourself this task is more important than the other 999.

To understand why that is so difficult, consider the primary job for which your brain evolved – survival.

You have a strong motivation to go to work, since your paycheck depends on you doing your job. No work. No paycheck. You die. Easy choice!

But your writing project carries no such life and death stakes. If you go without writing no one will die as a result. And your brain knows it!

So, when you direct yourself to sit still and write, your ancient brain wiring simply yawns, and moves on to more urgent matters. To write your memoir, you need to trick yourself into thinking that writing really is urgent.

That’s where self-help strategies come in, to convince your brain that your daily writing is as important as breath itself. If you’ve ever seen (or been) a cigarette smoker, attempting to not take that next hit, you know exactly what I mean. The brain’s habit circuit is so strong, it can cause you to do things that could kill you.

While teenagers routinely convince themselves and each other to start self-destructive habits, writers must read books in order to learn how to start more positive behaviors. Once you get addicted to a daily writing habit, you will feel a sense of desire and even urgency to translate thoughts into words.

The urge to write might be less intense than the craving for a cigarette or a hit of crack, but with a good motivation and at the right time in your life, fostering a writing habit will be strong enough to get the job done.

How I started my own daily habit is a long story. But the important thing about that process is that building the habit was done in small steps over a period of years.

Reading articles like the one you are reading now is one such step. And reading entire books on the subject is an even bigger one. (See the notes at the end for some of the books I’ve read, and one that I’ve written.)

As a self-help junkie, I am already a nut about the subject of getting things done.

So when I was gifted a lovely, short book called The Checklist Book by Alexandra Franzen, I devoured it in a couple of hours.

Of course checklists are as familiar as your grocery shopping list. In fact they are so familiar most self-help authors don’t even bother to mention them. So reading a whole book about this simple habit was a refreshing opportunity to focus a lot of attention on something I already know, and in the process to renew my faith in its power.

The checklist scales things down to a delightfully bite size chunk. Which is the scale where habits live. By persistently making progress on small steps, over and over, you can achieve mighty things.

The special power of the lowly checklist arises from the barely noticeable burst of satisfaction you get from actually checking the box. It sounds so trivial, but in that tiny act, you are harnessing the same brain chemical, dopamine, that forces heroin addicts to seek their next fix.

Admittedly checking an item only releases a small surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, which is why we barely notice it. It’s the repetition that turns that series of tiny surges into a life changing habit.

Your brain is already wired to turn small rewards into unstoppable motivations. So instead of letting the dopamine surge of meaningless acts (like playing video games, checking your twitter feed, or eating potato chips) develop strong neural pathways, trick your brain into harnessing those powerful systems to write.

Transforming your habit-system from self-destructive behavior to creative acts that can make you feel better about yourself and move you in directions of your choosing – that’s an awesome outcome for the tiny Checklist book.

As for how to apply checklists to move your memoir-writing project forward, you will need to adapt them to your own current challenges.

For example, if you are just gathering anecdotes, you might write, “write one memory” on your check list.

Or if you are organizing your time line, put on your list, “add five events to my timeline file.” Timelines are a powerful tool to help you sort out what happened, when.

Or if you are much further and you have a bunch of organized anecdotes, you might say, “pull together one segment into a chapter.” Chapters help you start organizing your anecdotes into a book length form.

Or if you completed the first draft, write a few paragraphs that explain exactly what this main character is trying to achieve. By describing your character’s mission, you can make better sense of the journey on which you are taking your reader.

Or if you’ve written your memoir and you are trying to figure out where you could speak about your book. “Email one local library today to find out if they host zoom meetings.”

When facing a task that keeps slipping away from you, you can even turn your attention toward your long term self-development. Your checklist could say, “read one page of the self help book currently on my reading pile.

At every stage along the way, you can gain momentum by listing a small task, and then achieving that task. You’ll send a tiny surge of satisfaction through your brain. Nature has been employing this trick for hundreds of millions of years to program us to do her bidding. Now, to write your memoir, take advantage of this ancient strategy.

As you continue to craft the story of your life, one check mark at a time, you will come to see that the small steps that carried you day by day throughout the difficult periods of your life, added up to make you the hero you are today.

2 thoughts on “Checklists for Memoir Writers

  1. What a lovely gesture by Jerry Waxler! I am a self confessed procrastinator for a myriad of reasons. I appreciate Jerry’s recommendation of the book, ‘The Checklist Book,’ by Alexandra Franzen and the ‘bite sized’ summary of it’s hook, ticking off small chunks of tasks completed.
    I can put this advice to work, immediately, thank you Jerry and Alexandra too.
    I endeavor to get my hands on this book. As Jerry mentions, sometimes we find answers in what we already know. It’s just a matter of bringing that information to the forefront of our minds.
    Of course, I too want to get my hands on Jerry’s three books at the top of the page. His words are enticing!

  2. Hi Juliet – In my anti-procrastination book, How to Become a Heroic Writer, I suggest one of the best things any writer can do is to tap into the desire to communicate with actual people. And now by hearing from you, you have become one of those actual people to whom this blog is directed. Thank you for offering your thoughts. Best wishes, Jerry

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