How to Start Writing Your Memoir
In a previous article, I wrote about how to structure your life stories. So, what do you do next?
After you gather all necessary materials, following one of the previously discussed structures, it is time to start writing the short of your life story or memoir.
What Is My Memoir or Life Story About?
Read through the notes you have been gathering, and ask yourself, “What aspect of my life is my memoir or short story about?” For example, it could be about overcoming an illness or a death, moving, going back to school, changing careers, etc.
A memoir focuses on something you went through that changed you as a person. In contrast, an autobiography is a chronological account of your life to date. Keeping those differences in mind, you can still incorporate many aspects of your life in a memoir through the use of flashbacks.
If you are just having an “a-ha” moment and realize you are writing an autobiography instead of a memoir, don’t hit delete. You can still use the following guidelines for the structure:
Visualize Your Story
The first step is to visualize your story. Visualization is a powerful tool – it helps make the final product real. Place the visualization of your story on paper by creating a story arc.
How to Create a Story Arc
Draw a huge arc on a piece of construction paper, and note the major events in your story from beginning to end. Sometimes, the shape will change as you begin to write, but it is important to have a shape in order to begin.
I have found that those people who try to write without the story shape may not have finished writing even ten years later. Please don’t let that happen; you owe it to yourself to write your story!
Here are four important parts of the story to identify on the arc:
First, ground the story by describing the location, time, date and year the story begins, and introduce the main character (you).
Second, point out the theme of the story/memoir by writing about an incident that led to the story occurring. We refer to this incident as the ‘trigger.’ It could be packing your suitcase and leaving your husband. It could be buying a one-way ticket to live in Costa Rica. It could be the diagnosis of a serious illness.
After you introduce the trigger, continue writing about the events that followed and the events that preceded the trigger through the use of flashbacks.
Flashbacks give you the opportunity to write about those stories in your life which influence the theme of the memoir or life story. If you moved a lot in adulthood, you might find it important to describe how you were used to moving a lot as a child.
Although a memoir is primarily about a major incident in your life, there are still plenty of opportunities to include stories about your childhood, roots and past incidents that affect the main story. Flashbacks are the best way to accomplish that.
The climax is that point in your life story where you come to a crossroad. It is at that crossroad that you will make a major choice that will change the course of your life.
For instance, you leave your job, train in a new field, and take a job in a foreign country. Or, after fighting a life-threatening illness, you decide to live your life differently than you did before you became ill.
Your life story should end with the result of the choices you made. What did you learn? How did you grow?
Theme, a.k.a., What Is the Core of My Story?
Identify the theme of your story by asking yourself, “What do I want to achieve in the story or memoir?” This is the tread that holds your memoir together. By identifying what you want, you will see your objective clearly, and it will become easier to decide what stories to use and what stories to remove.
The objective can be getting healthy, if the story is about overcoming an illness. Or, you may want to retire in a foreign country, and so your book will be about the stages you went through to achieve that goal.
When you identify your intentions for the memoir, you will be able to see more clearly how that journey started, the obstacles you faced, how you overcame those obstacles and how you concluded that episode of your life.
Now, Be Tough!
Write the first and last paragraph in your memoir. This is usually the moment when my students groan. Recently, a student even growled at me, but she still wrote the paragraphs and was then pleased that they helped her to see the shape of her story.
You can rewrite these paragraphs as your book evolves, but it’s important to write them first. They will be your guides for what lies in between.
My next article will cover how to create the scenes between the beginning, climax and end of the story. But for now – good luck and write daily!
Have you started writing your memoir or life story? How far did you get? Have you experienced any difficulties? What suggestions can you offer to others who want to attempt writing a memoir? Please join the discussion below!
Jill Morris is a life story writing coach and memoir teacher, who is passionate about her calling. She has written her own memoir, Eating the Walls, and currently teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at California State University, East Bay and community centers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.