Writing Your Memoir: Getting Started

My friend and I (on the left) make our purchases from the ice-cream man, about 1954.

Your story matters, and not just to you.  If you have even a small urge to write about what you have seen and known, I encourage you to do so.  Writing a book-length memoir is not as impossible a feat as it might seem.  It grows one scene, chapter, or essay—one story within your story—at a time.  And memoir writing offers enormous freedom in how you share your history and what you choose to tell.

Nevertheless, for most people, getting started on any writing project is a challenge—I know from personal experience, in spite of the almost eighteen years I spent as a speechwriter and all the years I taught English.  And so I want to offer a few suggestions and strategies that may help you move from the desire to tell your story to a completed book that you can then self-publish or market to a traditional publisher.

Here’s a way to begin:

First come to grips with your reason or reasons for wanting to write a memoir.

  • Are you writing primarily for your children and grandchildren, so they will know more about their own family history?
    My Parents, Age 1
    In these photos, my parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, are both about one year old (1918 and 1921).
  • Are you writing to share your era and experiences with a wide audience, to preserve the stories of a time and place that might be lost without your memoir?
  • Are you writing above all for yourself, to revisit some of the most important experiences, people, and places of your life and gain a clearer perspective on how you have become the person you are today?
  • Do you have an unusually dramatic and powerful story to tell, one that you think will interest a broad readership?

If you understand your audience and your reason or reasons for wanting to write, you will have an easier time getting underway, choosing what to include, and deciding how to present your story.

Draft a short description of the project that you would like to undertake and complete.  Include the time frame you want to cover (Your entire life so far?  Your childhood?  The years you were married to ___?  The last ten years?  The years you lived in ___?).  Also include the audience for whom you will be writing.

Choose a working title for your project and type or write it into place at the top of a new page. Now you are underway!

Collect photographs and documents that you would like to incorporate into your memoir or use as resource material. These will also serve as inspiration.

Consider the style or organizing principle for the memoir you plan to write. Here are a few possibilities.  (I’ll be discussing some of the different approaches in more depth in future articles.)  You can always change your mind and recast your memoir later, but picking an approach will help get you going:

  • Your memoir can read like a novel, with a strong narrative flow that builds to a climax and leads to some sort of significant insight, achievement, or change. Bestselling memoirs usually take this approach.  My Life in France (Julia Child), A Long Way Home (Saroo Brierley), and The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) are among the countless examples.
  • A flexible approach for many memoirists is to organize their book by topic areas, such as family members, neighbors and friends, community life, and schooldays. My mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, is organized this way.  Countless variations on this approach are possible.  Organizing topics for you to consider include, for example, the different places you have lived, your changing states of mind, the jobs you have held, odors that carry powerful memories (your grandmother’s perfume, your mother’s homemade bread, the lilacs that grew in your side yard, the chlorine in the pool where you loved to swim, and so on), the years with your various family pets, the phases of your creative life. . . .
    Mother and her bread
    My mother, Doris Burgess Hayek, made the best bread!
  • Instead of writing nonfiction, you might write a novel or a collection of short stories based on your life. Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald), David Copperfield (Charles Dickens), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) are three classic examples of autobiographical novels.
  • You could construct a memoir by writing a series of letters to important people in your life, or if you have saved many letters over the years, you might include excerpts from them and then expand on the stories they represent.
  • Consider telling your story in free verse, as Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming.
  • Photographs can be the driving force for your memoir, with each photograph followed by the story it evokes.
    Daddy as a boy with friends
    My father, Mason Hayek (in the middle), wrote about his schooldays in his memoir, Growing to 80.
  • If you are an artist or craftsperson, your creations not only can illustrate your memoir but also can assist in planning and organizing it. My father’s memoir, Growing to 80, is filled with his drawings, which help to tell his story.
  • If you are uncomfortable writing about yourself, you might try telling your story in the third person, as if you were writing about someone else. In La musica del silenzio (The Music of Silence), Andrea Bocelli calls himself “Amos”; instead of writing, “I did this,” he writes, “Amos did this,” or “He did this.”
  • A memoir can even be written in the second person. In other words, instead of saying, “I loved first grade,” the author would write, “You loved first grade.”  Writing about oneself in the second person is unusual but offers the writer some distance and perspective as he or she relives and examines the past.
  • If you have been writing short pieces throughout the years, you can create a memoir by assembling a collection of your writings and then organizing them into a rough chronology or into topic areas that represent significant aspects of your life.  My memoir, A Woman in Time, is of this type; it includes both prose and poetry.

Next, brainstorm a list of the possible topics you would like to cover in your memoir. If you need ideas, consult a list of writing prompts.  The StoryCorps website includes an extensive list of questions to consider.  Another good list of possible topics is the New York Times’ “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” also available to download as a PDF.  The New York Times list is designed for students but has questions to inspire writers of any age.

Now jump in and start writing. You don’t need to begin at the beginning, just jump in anywhere with one of the topics on your list or with something else that comes to mind.  You might pick a family photograph and write about it.  Or tell about the classmate on whom you had a crush in the fourth grade.  Or write a letter (that you won’t send!) to the hateful boss in your first job after graduation.  Write everything you can think of on the topic you’ve chosen—writing off the top of your head, without worrying about the quality of your work.  Just get everything down that you can.  You can organize your memoir after you have plenty of material to organize.

The Three of Us behind the Flowers

This photograph of my parents and me has always sparked happy feelings and memories for me.  The double exposure adds to the photo’s appeal.


Pick another topic and keep going.

If you get stuck, go back to the StoryCorps or New York Times questions (or to another collection of writing prompts). If you want, you can even draft your entire memoir using a question-and-answer technique: Write down a question, and then answer it.  When you’re ready to edit and mold your book, you may decide to keep the question-and-answer format, or more likely, you’ll remove the questions, organize the answers, and add the transitions and explanations needed to make your memoir flow.

If your momentum stalls, take a break by tackling a different area of the project. For instance, try thinking about the design for your book: What dimensions will it have?  What photo or photos do you want on the cover?  Which photos and other materials do you have available to illustrate what you’ve already written?  If you’ve handwritten your book draft so far, enter what you have into the computer.  Don’t worry if your computer skills are a little shaky for a project of this size.  I’ll be covering some relevant skills in later articles.  Just do what you can.

And when you start hearing voices telling you your story isn’t worth sharing and your writing doesn’t measure up, stop listening and keep writing, no matter what!

Next: Sharing the truth

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