When we sit down to write about our lives, the task can feel daunting. Writing about an entire life can make us feel like the starting point is elusive. Do we begin with birth? Do we start before that with our parents, grandparents, or ancestors? Do we begin with our first memory? It can feel like there is no easy answer.
Writing a memoir story is a unique experience. Our memories are usually spotty with some of the details easily accessible at the forefront and others lurching in the murky background. This can be a real challenge for memoirists since we both want to capture our stories but also want to share them in an honest and factual manner. That is not always an easy task.
As writers, we experiment with different techniques to begin a story until we find the methods that work for us as individuals. One writer may depend solely on a brainstorming technique to prepare, whereas another one may have a series of rituals including an early morning walk, an image search, and rereading yesterday’s writing. Over time, we figure out what works and stick with our methods so that we can be productive. Considering the greatest frustration for all writers is the blank page, we all want to get words on the page as quickly as possible.
When writers begin collecting their personal stories, the process can be rocky at the start, but writers who stick with it will find that the process becomes easier with time. Try one brainstorming method and see how well it works to get a story on paper. If you struggle, then try a second one and a third until you find a brainstorming technique that works for you. As with all challenges, facing it head on and persevering toward the goal will get you past the hard parts.
Some writers are particularly language-oriented. They think of individual words as having significant importance. These writers may compose poems or song lyrics in their creative time and tend to find that individual words can trigger thoughts, memories, and emotions.
Brainstorming a word list can help connect a writer with a memory that can transform into a story. The words can be used to tap into the memories themselves and can also be used in the story.
Example word list related to a memory of my summer when I was 7: willow tree swing, grasshoppers, yellow bikini, fireflies, fire pit, hot dogs and marshmallows, bedtime stories, red Converse tennis shoes.
If I used the word list method, the words I brainstormed help me remember what I did that summer. I can then use those words in my story, so if I’m a language-oriented writer, this can really get me started.
Close your eyes and picture yourself going back in time. Think back to the moment you met your best friend. Where were you? What was the weather like? What were you wearing? What were your plans for that day? What were you thinking about?
For many writers, when they can get a mental picture of an experience from their past, they can fill in the details. One of the fascinating things about memory is that once a person opens a window into the past, more memory reveals itself over time. A person may start by recalling the time they met their best friend on the playground at school, then by visualizing this memory and going through the events, one minute at a time, they can unlock additional details of what happened. For writers who enjoy meditation, mindfulness, and visualization, this can be an enjoyable story technique.
We live in a highly visual culture. Just 20 years ago, our phones were focused on sound, but today they are almost completely operating on visuals. Our lives have changed with each passing decade to being less multi-sensory and more visual. The more time we live indoors in front of screens, the more dependent we are on our ability to interpret visual information and less on our other senses.
As visual people, we can use aspects of that to our advantage. If you are a collector of photographs from vacations, life events, and celebrations, then you may have a treasure trove of visual content. You can use this as a starting point for creating your stories.
Take out the photographs that you have from elementary school and from high school. Take out the photos from your young adult life and from midlife. As you collect these wonderful images, take the time to sort them then study them in a way that helps you unlock the stories behind the visuals. Since we are a visual culture, we can use photos to tap into our memories and collect details that we can use in our memoir stories.
Collect Objects and Artifacts
Photographs are not the only tools writers can use to connect with their memories. Any type of artifact can do the job as well. Think about the types of things you may have related to your life memories: fabric samples, ribbons, awards, certificates, notes and cards, licenses, and artwork.
Like when a writer uses a photograph, accessing an artifact from one’s life, a writer can tap into their memories, open up more details on their memories, and use the artifacts as part of the presentation. Many memoir stories include photographs and artifacts within the stories. Adding imagery can help the writer to collect enough information to tell a story in the first place and can help get the full story communicated to readers.
One of the wonderful aspects of writing memoir is that writers aren’t limited to their own experiences. We live our lives around other people. Our connections to friends, family, and colleagues give us rich fuel for stories of interconnected lives.
Some memoirists begin their memoir writing journeys by interviewing people in their lives, particularly their family elders for ancestral and family stories. Interviewing others is a great way to start, because it takes the pressure off of the writer to collect their own stories. Instead, writers get to focus on the writing process for others’ stories, which can make storytelling feel more accessible, especially for writers who may be overwhelmed or blocked.
Oftentimes, writers have bits of memories but they don’t necessarily add up to an entire story. Collecting these memory snippets can create a resource pool of information that can be used in writing memoir stories. Consider using post-it style notes or notecards for collecting and cataloguing these memory snippets. A memory snippet might be as small as one sentence.
Memory snippets might include things like: the summer we saw David Bowie in Denver; the patent leather shoes when I was 10; my tenth birthday when I was sick; the day dad crashed his motorcycle.
Hopefully, there is one brainstorming technique that can support your writing practice. Once writers get a story or two on paper, more stories tend to come over time; it gets easier. As well, the more time writers spend accessing memories, the more memories come to light. This can be a blessing since writers have more information to access from their stories, but it can also mean that more time is needed on one’s memoir project. If you find that some of these techniques do not appeal, that is OK. Stick with the ones that work for you. Writers are all different and tend to gravitate to one method over another.
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People who have spent time writing, regardless if they wrote poetry, short stories, or personal essays, have found that the act of writing benefits the writer as much as it does the reader. Though we tend to view writing as a communication tool from reader to writer, one of its greatest benefits is supporting the writer’s well-being.
Set Aside Time to Write
When we write, we give our thoughts time. Time is such a luxury these days, as the technologies that were supposed to make life easier have shortened our attention spans and kept us perpetually distracted. When we put life on hold to write, we dedicate time to our thoughts and give them the space to flower. Writers have known that the writing process allows for time to think through one’s questions with both depth and breadth.
Novelist Flannery O’Connor suggested, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Writing is rarely quick and easy. It’s a slow process that gives the writer opportunity to shut off the world’s chaos and focus. When we do this, inevitably we take care of ourselves. Life has become so disordered that people are oftentimes exhausted just getting through the day. Taking time to quiet the world around us can allow for a break to sit with our thoughts, a habit that writers have used for centuries to regroup and reconnect with oneself.
Journaling after Stressful or Traumatic Events
Every person has experienced stress or trauma at some point. We may have experienced the loss of a friend or family member, the loss of wealth or stability or status, or the loss of place when our homes or communities change for the worse. Loss can wreak havoc on people, and the aftereffect can present itself in a variety of ways.
Some people experience heightened feelings of stress, weight change, affected memory, or declining physical health. For others, the effects can be as significant as mental health illnesses like depression or anxiety.
Some writers address their personal challenges by writing about them. Starting a journal where writers chronicle their hardships can help by putting words to the feelings and details to events gone awry. The process of journaling to express the depth of thoughts surrounding personal experiences can be incredibly therapeutic for writers.
There are two styles of writing recommended to support mental and emotional wellness after challenging times: expressive and reflective writing. With the expressive style, writers separate themselves from their writing by collecting their experiences as events separate from themselves. They write about their pain, trauma, and stressful situations without any editing or filters. The events and pain can become separated from the writer with time, as writers capture the details of events while looking at themselves as though they are characters within a story.
How do you start expressive writing? Choose a painful incident and write about what happened without stopping. Write about what happened, how it felt, what it made you think of, and what effects it had. Write it all down. Then tear the paper out of your notepad and throw it away (or burn it or shred it water and put it in the compost bin).
The point behind expressive writing is that you don’t judge yourself, your experiences, or your feelings. You just put it all to paper then destroy it. Evidence suggests that engaging in expressive writing can alleviate chronic physical and mental pain if done on a regular basis. Some people write every day and some multiple times a day. Expressive writing can be cathartic if you’re willing to give it a chance.
Reflective writing is similar in that the writer looks to the past for incidents to write about. But there is more license to analyze the past. With reflect writing, we look back to the past to see what happened, but rather than re-experiencing it, we figure it out, we break it apart, and we evaluate it so that we understand it. When we reflect, we are not the same people from the past. Today, we have new skills, experiences, and knowledge to use to rework our former selves.
When writers reflect on their previous experiences, they are writing for themselves not to share with an audience. The purpose isn’t to communicate an idea to a reader but to process experiences, emotions, and information with the intention of making sense of them to the writer. Anytime we can turn something from emotional to logical, we tend to feel relief.
Rewrite Your Experiences
When writers reach a point where they are emotionally able to face their past experiences with relish, they may want to try rewriting them. In all likelihood, you have a dozen incidents from your life where you replayed the event on repeat in an attempt to figure it all out. Well, when you write about it, you can do just that.
Think back to an incident that did not go in your favor. How could it have gone differently? What series of events could have changed to have made you the victor rather than the victim? What missteps did you take that you would like to redo?
Once you have the original incident and its more favorable outcome in mind, rewrite the story. Make yourself into the hero of the story. Change the things you said. Change the things other people said or did. Take this old incident that turned out poorly in real life and rework it so that it’s a moment of success in your life memories. Writers who rewrite their experiences can sometimes feel like they’ve taken back the control they lost in those incidents and regained a sense of confidence.
Writing serves a dozen different purposes. We can write to share information and stories with a reading audience. And we can write for ourselves. The writing techniques we use can help us lessen the damaging effects that stress and trauma can leave in their wake. By writing about our lives, we can engage in a kind of healing that just might make life a little bit better.
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Oftentimes, writers are able to draft the first-version of a story without a problem. They collect the characters, the plot, and the setting on the page, but when they read that first draft, it sometimes feels dry and dull. The reality is that the first draft often falls flat.
Once writers get the first draft done, the next step they take is incredibly important. If you assume the first draft is the best you can do and give up, then you lose the opportunity of crafting a truly lovely story. But, if you take another look at the story, you can edit and revise that first draft into a masterful piece of writing.
Regardless of the type of story (memoir, science fiction, etc.), writers try to achieve common goals: engage the reader throughout the story, capture their story’s essence, and create a piece that reflects the writer’s skills. There are a few tools writers can use to achieve all of these goals. As we revise our stories from the first drafts to the polished drafts, we can use literary devices to improve the writing.
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are structures, techniques, and practices writers use in non-fiction and fiction writing as well as poetry and screenplay. Literary devices are the building blocks of literature that engage readers, bring stories alive, and turn writing into an art form. Having a basic understanding of literary devices can help writers change their writing from dull to delightful.
A metaphor is a comparison of two things; it makes a direct comparison.
Typically, the two things being compared are otherwise unrelated, and the metaphor does not use the words “like” or “as”. The metaphor is one of the most common literary device; it tends to be easy for readers to decipher and enjoyable for writers to employ.
The grove of oak trees was an impenetrable fortress.
Sheila was a smart cookie.
When we say that the grove of oak trees was an impenetrable fortress, we are not literally saying that the trees had transformed into an actual fortress, but rather than the trees were so difficult to get through they had might as well be a fortress.
And when we say that Sheila is a smart cookie, we are not saying she is a baked good, but rather that Sheila is a smart person.
A similar is a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as”; it makes an indirect comparison.
The simile is similar to a metaphor in that it makes a comparison between two things, which typically are unrelated. Like the metaphor, the simile is a common literary device, is easy to use for writers, and easy for readers to decipher.
My dog shuffles like an old man.
The sleeping cat was as a ticking time bomb.
When we say the dog shuffles like an old man, we’re comparing the way the dog walks with the way some older gentlemen may walk. Though the two creatures, the dog and the man, might not be compared in normal circumstances, their manner of walk is compared here.
When we compare the sleeping cat with the time bomb, we are not saying the two are exactly the same. Rather, we are saying the cat is as delicate as the bomb. Likely, when the cat wakes up, she would be as dangerous as a bomb.
Imagery is a writer’s technique use of sensory details to describe something.
Writers can use imagery in any type of writing: poetry, non-fiction, and any type of fiction. It is a universal literary device and can be used in a literal or figurative way. Since many people tend to be visual, readers tend to engage with imagery.
The fog smothered the city in layers of thick cold that struck strait to the bone.
Marvin’s head felt like it had burst, the flesh burned and throbbed constantly as sharp pains stabbed sharpened daggers behind his eyes.
The fog’s description shows us how overwhelming the fog is. It has given the city a sense of having been enveloped by the cold, which a person feels in their bones.
Marvin’s headache is so bad that he feels both a burning and stabbing sensation from the pain.
Personification gives human traits to non-human things.
When writers use personification, they can pull the reader into the story by creating a connection between the reader and the story’s objects (animals, places, things). This can develop connection, compassion, or empathy between the reader and the story.
The bookshelf stood watch over the office and ensured the safety of Anya’s prized book collection.
The old Ford’s engine coughed and hacked back to life.
In our bookshelf example, we suggest that the bookshelf is doing the human tasks of standing guard and ensuring safety. It is not just holding books, as other bookshelves would do.
The old Ford makes human sounds when it coughs and hacks back to life, just as a person might adjust after sleeping for a long time.
How often should you use literary devices in your writing?
There is a balance when using literary devices. If you overuse them, your writing can be weighted down with description and the story’s pace slowed down or even stopped. If you under-use them, the story can be dull and lifeless. Finding the balance for your writing is one of the key steps for you to create your personal writing style.
After you have written the first draft of your story, add one literary device to each paragraph. Re-read the story and decide if that revision made a positive change for your story. Is the story more interesting? Is it more alive? If so, continue to experiment with literary devices. Add a second literary device to each paragraph, then check the story again. Did the second addition improve the writing? Is the story more engaging for the reader without losing the story’s pace?
As you work literary devices into your writing, try to find the balance of how often you can use these techniques in your writing without losing the value of your narrative. Once you try them, you will be hooked and integrate them into all of your writing.
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No matter what type of writing you do: memoir, short story, poetry, or novels, there are times when your creative energy wanes. Sometimes, you fall off track and lose the plot of your story. Sometimes, life gets the better of you, and there’s no time to write. And sometimes, your energy just runs out.
When your tanks run low, taking a moment to reset your intentions can support your writing practice.
At some point in your life, you have probably set resolutions for the new year. Perhaps you wanted to lose weight, eat healthier, be more productive, or find your true love. Whatever your goal was, setting a new year’s resolution is one way that people take a moment to put into words the goal they want to achieve.
Why Resolutions Don’t Always Work
Unfortunately, if your resolution didn’t stick for very long, you are not alone. For most of us, stating a resolution doesn’t put us on the path to achieving our goals. And for many of us, the resolution itself may be the issue.
When you set a resolution, you accept a viewpoint that we aren’t doing enough, aren’t good enough, or aren’t worthy. A resolution tends to be focused on the problem rather than the solution. A resolution can presuppose that a major change is needed for us to move forward, and that thinking can be a negative for some people and may lead to the resolution’s failure.
What is an Intention?
An intention is the act of setting a goal that is more focused on the journey toward the goal. An intention tends to be focused on the solution rather than on the problem.
Writers are natural planners. Since you plan a story, a poem, or a novel before sitting down to write, creating a plan to meet your goal is a similar process. Once you set your goal, making it to the end result is a process you have been through many times.
Example of a Writers’ Intentions for the New Year
I received an email today from a writer I worked with earlier in the year. She sent a year-at-a-glance message to people connected with her work. In her message, she outlined projects that invigorated her and projects that drained her.
She listed her plans for the new year: start a new book, write more blog posts, get two articles published before summer, and attend an upcoming writer’s workshop. Nowhere in her message did she indicate that she needed to make a major change to her writing life, rather she outlined the small adjustments that she intends to drive her writing career to its next level.
She emailed a bulleted list with a few things she intends to do this year with her writing. Simple.
Set Your Intentions to Write
Think of one writing goal that you would like to accomplish. A small goal is a good one, because you can achieve it in a shorter time period and be able to move onto another, larger goal later.
Once you have your goal in mind, what is a reasonable period of time needed to accomplish it?
What resources, tools, or material do you need to accomplish this goal?
If you need to get things in order to accomplish this goal, do that first, then start into your plan and achieve your goal.
Writing Can Be Hard Work but It Is Worth the Effort
Sometimes, writing is easy. You sit down with a hot cup of coffee and the words magically flow from your fingers as though you tapped into a creative stream in the universe.
Other times, you may feel distracted, overwhelmed, or discouraged. These experiences happen to all writers, so try to be kind to yourself when in a low point with your writing. Give yourself a break and set an intention to move your writing forward. Writing can be hard work, but it is worth the effort when you see your words on the page.
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Regardless of which writing project you are working on, you are likely to run into challenges along the way. Inevitably, writers run out of energy, get distracted by other activities, and lose the momentum to keep their projects moving forward. Even professional writers report that sometimes keeping a project going can be quite a challenge.
For memoir writers, the predicament can be complicated. As we look more closely at our past experiences, we sometimes have to process personal emotions, thoughts, and memories that may have been better off left alone. Yet, sifting through the rubble of yesterday is part of the process, and as we continue forward, even the darker days of searching through the shadows can reveal valuable stories to be included in our memoirs.
Too, searching through old memories can mean we need time away from the writing to work out where to go next. As we dig into our past memories, we oftentimes find that our memories are less detailed than we once recalled or our adventures may have lost the emotional intensity we once felt about them. When we sift through our memories, the work is not just once step in the writing process but a step in the process of understanding ourselves better.
So, having acknowledged that memoir writing can be more complicated than other writing styles, are there activities writers can try to make that process a bit easier?
When memoir writing, the more writers engage with the writing process and continue to search through their memories, the easier the process can become. With time, writers become more adept at identifying which memories will produce valuable stories to share and which ones are better left alone.
To achieve an understanding of one’s memories and how well they will work within the memoir structure, take steps to locate and work with more memories. Reaching into the past repeatedly will help writers to access better memories that can be transferred into the final book, the memoir.
Re-read a book you loved in childhood
What were your favorite childhood books? I remember my sister had a tattered copy of The Velveteen Rabbit, and our youngest sister had a copy of The Wind in the Willows that looked like it had been read a thousand times. When I was a kid, I had a book of Mother Goose stories and another called 365 Bedtime Stories. My sister found it in an old box of things headed out for donations, and when I saw the cover, dozens of memories of hearing tiny, 5-minute long stories at bedtime came rushing back.
Having the book in my hands helped me remember certain aspects of being a child who got to experience bedtime stories. But, when I opened it and read through a dozen of the stories, I was able to recall small details of what would happen next, which characters were included, and what happened in the stories. In short, I was a five-year-old child again, fully immersed in those memories.
Having a book from our past can bring back memories in a different way. The book allows us to re-experience the story, and that story can bring us back to memories from long ago.
Visit a place you loved
Have you ever visited an old haunt and wondered at the size difference? Many people travel to a once-beloved location and find that somehow it shrunk over the years. When we were younger, places held a different point of reference for us, and we sometimes felt small and easily effected by places.
Visiting places where we made memories can be a powerful experience to reconnect with our former selves. When in a place, we quickly identify the details that are the same (the paint color, the floor tiles, the small windows, the light coming in the front door), and that experience of being in such a space can bring our memories flooding back.
Sort photos, letters, and keepsakes
If you are anything like my family, then you have boxes of keepsakes sitting in a closet in your house. I think my sisters and I each have a box or two filled with photos of childhood, letters we received from our grandparents, trophies and medals, and all kinds of small keepsakes. These mementos are the souvenirs of our full and well-lived lives. They provide the details that remind us who we were and the paths we have traveled to become the people we are. Reconnecting with these keepsakes can be helpful to memoir writers hunting for stories to share.
Share a memory
Believe it or not, one of the best ways of tapping into your memories is to share them. Telling another person about an important event in your life, a time when you learned a lesson, or a moment that meant more than the others is an opportunity not only for the person hearing your story but for you. When we share our stories, we reconnect ourselves to the past and reach back to find the details that made our life experiences meaningful.
The process of writing a memoir can be daunting. Sometimes, the memories can be fleeting, and sometimes they can be exhausting. In both situations, writers can be pulled out of the writing process and distracted into giving up. Instead, reach out again to find those memories worth sharing by engaging in an activity that helps you to connect with those memories.
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What do Barack Obama, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and Tom Wolfe have in common? They all write their books by hand- yes, by hand with pen and paper. Today, we have become so dependent on keyboards that we have lost the art behind handwriting, and it could be affecting our creativity.
I remember senior year of high school. I submitted a ten-page research paper that was handwritten, in what was then, pretty decent penmanship. I didn’t have access to a typewriter, and although my high school had word processors and computers for students to use, I had no idea how to use one. My teacher said penmanship made her eyes hurt and told me it was the last paper she’d accept in longhand.
My determination to stick with pen and paper lasted me through college, as I wrote out every essay by hand before typing it on a 1960s typewriter in freshman and sophomore years before I upgraded to a word processor. For me, I couldn’t compose at the keyboard; I needed a pen in my hand (and a cup of coffee in the other) to get the words flowing.
During class one day, a professor asked questions about the writing process, and I shared my experience of combining both longhand and typed steps to create a piece. She was clearly shocked and recommended I practice composing at the keyboard to save time.
Learning to think and type at the same time took me years, and once I did, guess what happened?
My handwriting became illegible, I started writing longer pieces more quickly, and I lost some of the joy of writing. As a Gen Xer, my experience has similarities to others my age, but younger people never combined the two styles of writing and have written exclusively on a keyboard their entire lives.
Does it really make a difference how we write?
Actually, it can. When we write by hand, we can go through a different creative experience than when we type, and the pieces we produce can be different.
When we write longhand, the process of composing sentences is slowed because we tend to handwrite slower than we type. This slowing changes the creative process, because it allows the mind to connect ideas, ask connected questions, and think through other ideas before writing the next sentence. While working with creative ideas, writers who handwrite can make interesting connections to drive their stories forward. This could increase productivity and lessen the likelihood of the dreaded writer’s block.
As well, handwriting is visual in a way that typing never can be. We are a highly visual society, so being able to see our words composed on the page can reinforce our confidence with the creative process. It also allows for the option of doodling and drawing in the margins, which can put a visual to a story. And it can allow us to edit directly on the page so that we can still see the original words; whereas typing deletes the typed words and leaves us only with the current version of the text. Being able to see the words on the page at various editing stages can help the writer stay connected to the story and build on its intricacies over time.
Educational research shows that handwriting helps writers process information. We learn more, we understand more, and we are able to make more connections when we take notes and write by hand. If there is anything writers need when they are composing it is to be able to learn, understand, and make connections.
As well, we are more likely to tap into another layer of creativity when we write by hand, because penmanship itself is an art form. If you remember people talking about identifying a person’s qualities by analyzing their handwriting, then you’ll remember how important the artfulness of penmanship can be.
The admirable attributes of handwriting don’t end there. Happily, the world has yet to connect Facebook, Google, or other writer-distracting apps to paper. Many writers today admit they are easily distracted while writing and don’t produce as much quality work as they would like to. Well, if you can reconnect with pen and paper, you may be able to leave social media’s endless scrolling behind during your creativity time.
So, is typing really so bad?
Not really, no. Many writers choose the keyboard for a variety of reasons including: comfort, composition speed, and combining the writing process steps. I’ve met more than a few people whose hands hurt when they handwrite, so using a keyboard is more comfortable for them. Too, writers have the ability to compose longer pieces at the keyboard in shorter periods of time (as long as they stay focused and are quick typists).
As well, writers have also reported that they can type up an outline of their ideas and use that to type up the paragraphs. Whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel, using a word processing document to move from one stage to the next can lessen the work and help writers stay organized.
If you are a writer who loses everything from your keys to Post-it Notes, carrying around stacks of paper might be a bad idea. But, if you have a secure backup system with your computer, then typing may be the best solution so that you don’t lose your work.
Is there a solution?
Oh sure, do what works best for you. Part of the process of being a creative person is finding out which processes support your creativity. You may need to try out multiple methods before landing on your best practice. Perhaps you brainstorm and outline with typing then handwrite the draft and type the final version into your computer.
One of the most valuable realizations about my own writing process happened while I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing. In that book, he discussed his process, which includes writing out the first draft then cutting 20% of the words to create the second draft. While reading that, I realized that my process was completely different, because I write a small rough draft, then I double the words on my second draft, and double again on the third draft, and so on. Knowing what works for you solves a plethora of potential problems and gives you confidence in your own creativity.
If it’s going to be pen and paper or the keyboard for you, just make sure the process suits your creative needs.
You've decided to write your memoir. You're ready to collect your personal stories with the hopes that they’ll become deeply-cherished family treasures to be passed down for generations. Or perhaps your memoir will reach outside of your family’s intimate circle and affect people around the world, as so many published memoirs do these days.
But how does a writer start the process of collecting personal stories?
Sometimes a story is working its way to the surface, insisting on being told. You wake up in the morning thinking about that one time when, and you fall asleep running through the details of the event. Every now and then, writers get lucky enough to have a story itching to be written, but much of the time, we need to pick at the surface until we unearth memories worth retelling.
As with many activities, getting started can pose the greatest challenge.
Many writers agree that the blank page is the most formidable enemy, but once you put a few words on the page, the rest of the story can fall into place.
There are a couple different approaches that work well for beginning work on a memoir. One method is to brainstorm a list of 15-20 memories that are waiting to be told. This works well for writers who have stories immediately ready and are ready to set pen to paper without much preparation. However, many writers need more preparation. For these writers, writing prompts can be the more successful and efficient path for writing.
The three writing prompts below are from the book Letters to the Future: The Simple Guide for Writing Your Memoir. These prompts intentionally include multiple questions so if the first one doesn’t jump out at you, the next one may. Some writers have multiple stories related to each prompt and can use a single prompt to write several pieces.
Use these writing prompts to spark your memory—and then start writing your first few memoir stories.
Memoir-Writing Prompt 1. What’s in a Name?
What was your full name at birth and what is your name now? What does your name mean? Do you like it? Why did your parents name you that? What did people call you when you were a child? When you were a teenager? Did you ever have a nickname? What was it, and how did you get it?
Many families follow naming traditions. The first son may be named after the grandfather and the first daughter after the grandmother. Perhaps children are named for ancestors from several generations ago. Or perhaps parents choose names of famous people, leaders, artists, or religious figures like patron saints.
Then again, some families opt for the popular name at the time. In the early 20th century, the most popular boy’s name was John in both the United States and England, so if you have a grandfather or uncle named John, he may have been given the popular name of the time. If you grew up in the decade of Patricias, Heathers, Jennifers, or Madelines, then you know how loved popular names can be.
Our names do more than give us a moniker, they define who we are, encapsulate our parent’s mindset, and present us to the world. In some senses, our given names define who we are, while the nicknames we choose for ourselves allow us to re-imagine our place in the world. Our nicknames allow us to rename ourselves and give our friends power over us. Some cultures, like the United States, prefer shortened names to formal ones.
Not only is writing a story about your name an engaging addition to your memoir, but it’s a way to start conversation with family about their names. Do you know how your parents chose your name? Is there a story behind how you got your name? What about your last name? Is there a story behind your family name and its significance? The topic of naming can provide a foundation for a fascinating story.
Memoir-Writing Prompt 2. Family and First Friends
What are the names and birthdays of your parents? What are your favorite memories with your parents? What three words would you use to describe them and why? Did you look up to your parents when you were a kid? What did you admire about them? What did you dislike about them?
Who are your siblings? What are they like? How did you get along as kids? Have you lost any siblings? What is your favorite memory with your siblings (or cousins or friends) when you were young? Which kid were you: the smart one, the attractive one, the athletic one, etc.? Why did you get that label?
Are your family members your friends or are your friends your family? The people we surround ourselves with define us, guide us, and support us, and they oftentimes are a reflection of who we are. So much about who we are and what we do is connected to our friendships. How have friendships affected you? What stories can you capture connected to your friendships?
Memoir-Writing Prompt 3. Who Were Your Ancestors?
What are the names and birthdates of your grandparents? What are some interesting things you remember about them? What were their personalities, favorite activities, and memories you shared?
How about your great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives? Do you know their names and birthplaces? What were their occupations? Did you ever meet them? What did you hear about them from others? What about them did you like? What stories did they tell you about their past and where they came from?
Do you know any ancestors’ names, birthdays, or places of birth prior to your great-grandparents? What countries and cultures did your ancestors come from? Is that important to you? If so, why?
When writers compose the stories of their lives, those stories rarely stay put. They wander into family stories, stories with friends, and cultural events. Our stories overlap with those of our ancestors, our friends, and our colleagues.
The confluence of stories allows us to connect our experiences to those around us and open up a path for integrating genealogical work within our memoirs. Sometimes, writers have only fragments of stories about their ancestors; integrating those within our own stories as flashbacks, asides, and anecdotes can allow us to tell both stories. In many ways, our ancestors’ stories are the foundation for our stories, because their experiences laid the groundwork for our narratives to take place.
As with any type of writing, getting started is usually the hardest part of the process. Once you get the first lines down, then the rest of the story tends to flow more easily. The first draft is never the final draft, so getting the words on the page is the first step in a series to not just collect your stories but to compose your memoir.
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One of the most rewarding projects a person can take on is collecting their personal stories. The process of writing one’s memoir can bring about personal healing, can draw people together, and can preserve the past. Though the process seems straightforward enough, many writers face challenges, some of which can derail their plans to write a memoir. A little memoir writing advice can help put writers back on track.
To help you make progress in writing your memoir, follow these simple do's and don'ts:
Do Set a Schedule and Stick to It
When it is time to do something that will benefit us personally, many of us tend to put it off. We eat pizza instead of a salad, we wait until tomorrow to exercise, and we take care of everyone before ourselves. When it comes to our writing, we put that off too. To be successful, writers have to honor their writing time. It is so easy to push off writing until later or to assume that one must be inspired to be able to write.
Instead of falling into the trap of postponing your writing, plan for it. Set aside time that will work consistently with your schedule. Once a week for an hour is the minimum I would recommend. More than that is better if your schedule will allow for it. Of course, some professional writers recommend writing every day, seven days a week, but most of us lack that kind of time, so set aside time every week to write and stick to it. Honor your writing time just as you would a meeting with your boss or a doctor’s appointment, and watch your stories come together.
Do Write All Your Stories
When writers plan a writing project, they oftentimes specify what they intend to cover before putting pen to paper. Many memoir writers plan to tell the stories of a brief time in their lives: the year of the divorce, their college days, growing up with alcoholic parents, or the around-the-world trip. But, when we begin writing, other stories can emerge. Take the time to jot down those stories when they appear; they could present opportunities to offer backstory, flashback, or context, even if they are outside the intended scope of your memoir.
Do Give Your Stories a Chance
Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing that our own stories are important and we gloss over them to write stories of our parents or grandparents. Memoirs are interconnected across many people. They transcend time and space, because people grow and change. Try to give your own stories a chance by collecting them, even if your personal stories become the anecdotal tales that accompany the work you are doing to write stories of your extended family.
Don’t Avoid Difficult Events
Writers may get the idea that they should hide the family secrets, dark memories, and embarrassing moments, but including difficult events can open up opportunities to connect with your readers. One of the reasons readers are attracted to memoirs is the desire to connect with the writer’s life events and learn how they managed challenges.
Rather than hiding the dark events of your past, write them. All of them won’t end up in the final draft of the memoir, but the act of collecting them can reveal connections to other stories and themes that could be explored. As well, writing difficult stories can open up writers to different ways of presenting those events. Some writers find ways to present difficult events by using humor or analysis, and this can add another layer of interest to a memoir.
Don’t Self-Edit While Writing
Writers who struggle to write their stories try to write and edit at the same time, and this method can backfire. Writing and editing use different parts of the brain, as writing is creative and editing is analytical. Switching back and forth slows the writing process dramatically and can cause writers to feel self-critical and insecure about their writing.
Instead, write the rough draft of all the stories first. Once you hit the point where there are no more stories to tell, start the editing and revising process. Editing can take significantly longer than the initial writing for some writers, but the more words you have on the page in the rough draft, then the more you have to work with while editing. That can allow more options when deciding which stories to keep, which scenes to drop, and which ones to enhance for the final piece.
Memoir writers can find a way to worry about anything. Will anyone think my stories are interesting? Is my life worth sharing? What if my family doesn’t care? What if my siblings disagree with my recollection of events? What if my writing isn’t good enough? What if I can’t find a publisher?
Writing a memoir is a journey of discovery. Even though we lived through our personal experiences, we learn about them, uncover different thoughts and reflections, and come to an understanding of who we are by writing our personal stories. Don't get caught up in what the outcomes may or may not be. Instead, embrace the process.
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During 2020, you likely went through some kind of hardship. Maybe you lost a loved one, a home, or a job. Maybe you had to transition to interacting with people virtually or to working from home. Maybe you were OK but had to support someone who was struggling. Between the pandemic, protests, political upheaval, and economic uncertainty, 2020 turned out to be a disappointment even to the least affected.
So, what did you learn from that experience? I bet that you learned what is important in your life. I bet you learned what you truly value. And I bet you learned to pivot on a pin to be able to persevere through difficulty. After experiencing challenging events, writing about them can help initiate the healing process.
Here are five reasons why you should write your memoir in 2021.
Writing Helps Organize Thoughts
Writing helps us make sense of our thoughts and feelings and can be a conduit for better understanding your experiences. Reflective writing helps the writer first and foremost by allowing a pathway to organize our thoughts.
Writing Improves Memory
Did you know that writing down your memories improves your memory? I have experienced this myself. When you take the time to write about your experiences, not only can you support yourself by making sense of them but the process can improve your memory and allow you to recall more depth and detail of your memories.
Make Your Writing a Gift
In most cases, we write for ourselves and for those in our immediate circles. Your writing, especially your memoir writing, is more likely to end up in the hands of friends and family than anywhere else, so make it into a gift of love for them. Write down your life stories with the intention of sharing yourself with those you care for most.
Writing is an Exploration of the Unknown
The process of writing not only helps the writer make sense of their thoughts but reveals layers of the unknown. We don’t know what stories are waiting to be excavated until we begin digging. As we write, we reveal ideas, stories, information that can be collected and preserved.
Write Your Book
Many people will say they feel like they have a book inside of them, and most are right. Even if that book doesn’t end up being a New York Times bestseller, many people have a book idea sitting in the back of their minds. The only way to access that book is to start writing.
The process of writing is a process of revelation, discovery, and healing. As we engage in reflective, memoir writing, we take part in an opportunity to improve as writers and as people.
Watch the video 5 Reasons to Write Your Memoir in 2021
For help getting started on your memoir, check out our book:
Letters to the Future: The Simple Guide for Writing Your Memoir
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I think everyone would agree that 2020 could have gone better. The list of challenges that popped up during the year strained every aspect of our lives: personal, familial, professional.
Not only that but many creative people found their livelihoods yanked from beneath them as galleries closed, bookstores and libraries postponed events, and theaters went dark. The places we depend upon for creative connection shuttered. As we transitioned to connecting virtually, many people came to terms with the shifting balance that we had to give more and receive less.
So, how can writers move beyond a difficult year? Write about it.
We have known for decades that writing offers therapeutic benefits for people who make time to reflect on their experiences. When we write, all the grief and pain of our lives do not disappear as the ink dries, but the process of collecting our thoughts, feelings, and memories onto paper can lighten the burden.
When we write about our experiences, the process can help us to make sense of them. In a similar way that talking through a situation with a friend can bring us some relief, so it goes with writing. Though writing may not offer the full effects of professional therapy, it can improve our relationships with the past.
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Too, when we write about our experiences, we can improve our understanding of events but we can also improve our memory and ability to remember. As we age, recalling the details of past events can be more challenging than when we were young. When we write about what happened, more details make themselves known. For example, I recently wrote up memories of a friend who passed, and while I was writing I was able to recall not just the details like what we were wearing on eventful days, but I also remembered more events as I wrote. In all, I ended up writing twice as much as I had originally planned.
Writing is good for you. It taps into your creative energy, gives you an outlet for your thoughts and feelings, and provides a process to make sense of the world around you. After surviving 2020, spend some time writing about your experiences. The outcome could be the foundation for a rich section of your memoir.
We all walked away with new lessons learned after 2020.
With the year behind us, now is an excellent opportunity to capture your memories while they are still fresh.
As you write, consider how you can integrate lessons learned, revelation of self, and reflections on the events. These elements make for engaging memoir stories. When you share lessons learned, it allows your reader to understand the series of events in your life and how they unfolded. Revelation of self helps your reader to connect to you as a writer. And reflecting on the events gives you, the writer, opportunity to analyze the events in retrospect which can allow for greater analysis of what happened.
We made it through 2020 in one piece, so now it is time to put those stories together. Start by thinking of one event that happened in 2020 and write about that. Perhaps you will write about when you first realized that Covid was a pandemic. Perhaps you will write about the political division in communities. Or perhaps you will write about the adjustments you made to communicating with people virtually.
Start with one event and write about it. Then move onto another event. The writing can be very short; a page per story is plenty to get things started. Once you've written about the year behind you, keep going. The process of collecting your stories can take some time, but the memories tend to bubble to the surface as you are working. And the result can offer a treasure trove of memoir material.
For memoir writing prompts, check out the book, Letters to the Future:
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