How to Start Writing Your Memoir

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

If you have ever wanted to shape your memories into stories, there has never been a better time. Thanks to the popularity of bestselling memoirs by ordinary people, many of us are wondering if we could record our past into a readable form. Before we start, though, two simple questions block the way. How do you do it? And why would anyone care? These two questions sound like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, when you make a sincere effort to find answers, you will be learning an invigorating craft, and also finding a new way to look at your own journey.

If you are not an accomplished writer, don’t let that stop you. You weren’t a professional when you started other activities. Just learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.

The fundamental building block of all storytelling is the scene. To write about your experience, jump into the memory and report what you see, hear, feel and think. Dialog is often used in memoirs, with the understanding that the words are only a best guess at what was said. Once you start writing, you will be amazed at how interesting your account will be to a curious, empathetic reader.

Over time, you will build a stockpile of anecdotes. These may seem fragmented, until you apply the simple organizing principle of chronological order. By placing your anecdotes in sequence, the form of a story will begin to emerge.

How to make your story interesting

You wouldn’t believe your life was worth writing if by “story” you imagining the kinds of tales my dad told every night after coming home from the drugstore. He would say something like, “The doctor next door came in late again today and his patients kept begging me for information.” Such dinner-table stories vented some emotion or highlighted some powerful or humorous incident. We rolled our eyes or laughed, and that was the end of the story.

However, when you read memoirs, you’ll notice many differences between crafted stories and casual ones. Memoirs present characters who start out with some emotional challenge. The character then proceeds toward a goal, overcoming obstacles, experimenting, and learning from mistakes. By the end of a written story, the events make sense in a larger context and both the reader and the writer feel okay about the whole thing

To learn how to express your life through story, you need to reveal more information about yourself than you might typically be inclined to do in conversation. Such disclosure may seem daunting at first. Many beginners assume their revelations will create divisions and tension.  In many cases I have found the opposite to be true. Opening yourself up allows people to see you as more accessible, and can actually increase intimacy with loved ones.

Written stories also tend to explore mundane details of life far more than spoken stories do. The reason is that when you write a story, you are attempting to provide sensory information so readers can visualize who you are and where you’ve been. You can help them do so by letting them walk with you to school, or go on a first date. What kept you busy after school? Describe each room in your house, and write a scene that happened in each one. Describe your neighborhood, or the games you played with your friends. These details seem unimportant when you’re speaking, but they will help a reader feel connected to your experience.

When writing your memories, put yourself in the mind of a reader. That is easy to do since you have been enjoying stories since your parents started reading them to you as a child. By learning to convey your memories in this form, you provide readers with pleasure, provide yourself with the satisfaction of creating a written piece, and gain an insight into a craft that has entertained you throughout your life.

What you need to start your memoir

A writing habit
Write a few minutes every day. This will accomplish two important goals. First the writing will add up over time. Second, the habit will create momentum, which makes it much easier to write.

Writing prompts
Ask yourself questions: Write a scene about a bad hair day, a great vacation, a day with a best friend. By developing a list of such questions you can stimulate all sorts of surprise gifts from your unconscious.

A curious supportive audience
To write with freedom and energy, find or imagine a warm, curious audience. Your first such audience might be at a local library where you join with others who help each other write stories.

Read memoirs
By reading memoirs, you will appreciate the skill and patience with which other writers achieved the task. Every one you read provides an example from which you can draw lessons about how to write your own.

Read books and take classes about writing memoirs
There are an abundance of teachers, in classrooms, in books, and online, eager to help you get started.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

3 thoughts on “How to Start Writing Your Memoir

  1. You wrote: “…you need to reveal more information about yourself than you might typically be inclined to do in conversation. Such disclosure may seem daunting at first. Many beginners assume their revelations will create divisions and tension.”

    This is my fear, and why it’s taken me so long to put my book together. Now that I’m so close, I’m really feeling anxious – nearly to the point of finding a reason not to publish. Yet I’ve purposefully kept my stories light-hearted, focusing on quirky over the darker moments. Mine isn’t about my entire life, just moments in my life. My concerns are mostly about family members.

  2. Thanks for sharing your fear, Michele. One of the best antidotes for the generalized fear of “saying too much” or “no one shares that stuff” is sharing in a class or group – once you realize that you are in a room full of people who are accepting each other despite their stories, these fears often lose their power. The issue of offending family members sounds more specific. You are right that tone of voice can be softened. The goal is to honestly share your story without intentionally dragging others down through bitter accusations. Overcoming these fears is a process, If you are motivated, and “can’t not” tell your story, you’ll charge ahead and accept the consequences. I’ve written lots about all this. Let me see if I can find an essay about it… How about this one:

    This essay deals with the specific issue about relationships with parents.

    Sue William Silverman and Linda Wisniewski both talk about this issue when writing their memoirs. Let me know if you want more.

    Best wishes

  3. Hi, Jerry –

    Thank you so much for all you’ve said, and providing that link. All that really helps.

    For good or bad, family are interwoven into my life, in my experiences and forever after in my motivations. It is MY life I write about, and they’re included. And in this life of mine I’ve had a lifelong passion to write. To expect me to cut out massive parts of my life (i.e. Not write about growing up with my father), is like chopping off the legs of a ballerina. That’s how it feels to me, when asked to “Not mention” certain people (which has happened) is a mental amputation.

    Something else that allows my brain freedom to continue to tell my stories is Anne Lamott’s quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

    Even with all that said, I find no joy in playing victim, recounting miseries. Nope. I find joy in the humor of life – tragedy/comedy; yin/yang. For me, to wallow in bad experiences, and let them bring me down, would to not be in control of my attitude. I don’t do that. I write because I enjoy life – the good and the bad.

    Thank you!

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