How to write a memoir

This article was originally published in Michigan Prime, in November 2015.

Your memoir may be the most valuable treasure you leave for your loved ones. Heres how to get started…

IMG_0384I’ll never forget a certain elderly gentleman who showed up at one of the first memoir writing classes I taught at a local senior center, years ago.

Under each arm he carried a large grocery bag stuffed with old letters, sepia-toned photos, and leather-bound journals. When it was his turn to introduce himself to the class, he announced that he hoped to turn the contents of the grocery bags into a “national bestseller.” Then he turned to me and asked if I would look through all the materials and “ghost-write” his memoir. (As I discovered in subsequent workshops, this kind of request wasn’t unusual. I had to learn to say “no” as gently as possible.)

I kindly explained that I wasn’t a biographer and that nobody else can write our memoirs for us. And while I wasn’t in the business of editing or ghostwriting, I promised to help guide him through the process during our time together in the writing class.

Written by heart — in our own words — our memoirs probably won’t top the bestseller lists. But they could be the most valuable legacies we bequeath to our loved ones. Luckily, the gentleman with the grocery bags had plenty of evidence of a life richly lived. All he needed was the time and the discipline to spin it into a readable story.

Memoir defined

Whether your goal is to pen a book-length memoir or a few personal essays, it’s essential to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in it’s composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).

In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with, say, your first memory of nursery school and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, starting with, say, the chilly November afternoon your father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or the brave moment you quit your office job to start working at a rodeo.

Mining your buried treasure

Like the man with the grocery bags brimming with documents and souvenirs, most new memoirists are overwhelmed by the thought of choosing which stories to share — and where to begin. The following tips usually subdue their fears and help plow through writers block at various points along the way.

  1. Give yourself permission to share your story.¬†Silence your inner critic and try to write freely. Your first order of business is to get words on paper or on the computer. Make lists of important points or moments you want to include. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft. (See #8.)
  2. Take small bites. Start by writing a series of short personal essays, each focusing on a different experience. Gathered together, these could be expanded as chapters in your book.
  3. Be a family archaeologist. Unearth old memories while exploring photographs, keepsakes, letters, and heirlooms. Choose one item, then start writing about how you acquired the item and what it means to you.
  4. Get cooking. Use a family recipe as a prompt; write down the memories it stirs. My Scottish grandmother’s shortbread recipe, for instance, always triggers memories of her old-country proverbs and family gatherings.
  5. Brush up your interview skills. Talk with elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a favorite love song to war stories. Get a real sense of the history and timeline you’re planning to write about.
  6. Use sensory detail and proper names. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles. Use all of your senses to describe the important details you remember — sight, sound, scent, and touch.
  7. Avoid aimless rambling, no matter how poetic. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts wisdom or a life lesson. Let your stories reveal their truth and impart meaning. Never lose sight of your reader(s). Ask yourself why¬†anyone else would be interested in what you’re sharing.
  8. Read published memoirs; observe how other writers craft their work. Ask your librarian for recommendations of popular memoirs.
  9. Polish your gems. Keep your writing clear and simple. Proofread your final draft to catch errors of fact, spelling or grammar. Lastly, show your work to friends or family members if you’re worried about getting your stories straight.

The ultimate reward

Once you’ve committed a few memories to the page, you’re entitled to feel proud of your accomplishment. Keep writing and polishing.

As memoirist Mary Karr notes in her new book, The Art of Memoir (HarperCollins), it takes tremendous courage to share our true experiences: “None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one by one.” ~Cindy La Ferle