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.

Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?

(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)

While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.

Innovation makes publishers nervous

One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.

The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.

Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.

Different decade, different coast

While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.

Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller

Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.

After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.

Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”

Satisfying Character Arc

I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.

When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.

For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.

Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.

The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.

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

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

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.