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One Woman’s Memoir Writing Journey

By Di Castle November 18, 2022 Lifestyle

In the pandemic, with days on end of isolation and worry, writing was found to be cathartic. Some of you may have used the time wisely and now you are able to look back and see that it was a very constructive time.

With empty diaries, some people chose to use the time to start writing a memoir. This has recently been a theme in the Sixty and Me community, and it reminded me of why I began writing my memoir 50 years ago.

How Did It Start?

I have been in writing groups for many years; first in a group in Northwood where I was able, for the first time, to read out work that I had written. 20 years ago, I moved to Dorset and found two writing groups. When numbers dropped, these groups amalgamated into one.

It was at one of these meetings that a member read out her memoir. It was an extract featuring the dreaded PE lessons and hockey matches in what were then grammar schools. The PE mistress was a doppelgänger of mine, and I thought if that woman could write down her memories, I could write something equally appealing.

This coincided with my venture into researching family history. A common tool is, but finding this an expensive resource, I discovered which offered a more economical annual fee. This exercise took up considerable time over the next 6 to 12 months, discovering a lengthy family tree. As I entered information, memories of my childhood began to surface.

How This Helps Memory?

Around this time, I became aware that some acquaintances and friends were suffering memory problems, and it occurred to me that writing everything down in my 60s would give me something to refer to at a later date, something I have been incredibly thankful for when sharing information.

A spin-off from this endeavour has been the gathering of my own history which is now firmly in my memory. I have recounted many tales to my children and grandchildren thanks to this exercise. After all, we don’t just write it down, we have to reread many times and edit the contents and, if we want to publish, we need a professional editor. This whole process ensures the contents become firmly embedded in memory.

How I Started

So, what was I to do? I visited the local stationers, bought a large red bound journal and began writing down memories of my school days and of my family. I did not worry about the chronological route as that can be inhibiting, but I did date all the entries with an approximate year and themes such as family, school, friends.

I carried the journal with me on visits to the beach and when on holiday. I do keep notebooks with holiday and travel information which are all indexed, something I will share with this community in a future blog.

The chronology of your writing can be sorted at a later date when inputting it on the computer and thanks to cut-and-paste you can decide where a certain section should go.

Where Am I Now?

My memoir began to take up a good deal of time, and now, at the point where it is reaching publication, it stands at 80,000 words. I have shared extracts on my blog.

I have been asked frequently to give tips on how to start writing a memoir. People who are retired will often say they would like to write their memories down. One word of warning is that this is not something that can be done over one weekend or even two or three months.

It is a commitment over a long period of time. My memoir has taken me 15 years, although I have worked on other writing projects along the way. If you are just starting, you should keep in mind that you may need to put your work aside regularly and then return to it and read it from the start before continuing.

Another mistake is to try to include too much information and write everything from your date of birth until the present day which may be in your eighth decade. It’s a good idea to have themes and a strong voice.

Not everything in your life will interest people. Young people like to read about what life was like in the 1950s and 1960s and can be amazed at how we managed without mobile phones or even telephones and definitely without computers and television.

So Here Are Some Ideas on How to Start Writing Your Memoir

  • Think about why you want to write a memoir. My reason was to pass memories to my grandchildren.
  • Get a dedicated notebook. Create a file for research. Start writing.
  • Look through old photo albums for ideas and triggers. For example, a photograph of me in a fancy dress at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I was an acorn as my mother knew the oak tree was symbolic in England.
  • If mentioning people in your life, remember to paint them well or change details and names. My teachers have been Miss H and Mr C.
  • Do not include pictures or extracts without getting permission. It is generally safer to use your own photographs and not those taken by other people or found on the Internet.
  • Readers generally do not like to read about very private or upsetting anecdotes. Think before you commit to paper.
  • Do you have school reports from your school days? Teachers’ comments may trigger memories.
  • Talk to older members of your family about what they remember.
  • Write a letter to the local paper in the town where you lived as a child and ask for people to respond to you and share their memories with you.
  • Do some online research. For example, what was happening on the day you were born? What was happening in that year?
  • Do avoid just regurgitating facts. Use dialogue or reported speech. You could include your mother telling you about what happened in the war. You could have direct speech with a conversation between you and a sibling.
  • A further idea for research is to look up what toys/clothes/hobbies were around when you were a child or teenager. For example, I wrote at length about the hula-hoop craze.
  • Do you have school friends who can fill in details? Email them or phone them up. Find them on Facebook.
  • When writing about your hometown, you can research on the Internet. For example, I was born in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, and there is a Harpenden Facebook page where people post memories. This can help trigger your own memories. You can ask questions and get answers as well.
  • Wannabe writers forget it is important to read widely. Read other memoirs, ebooks and novels for useful techniques. Novels set in the years of your childhood will also give you useful background.
  • Buy a book on how to write your life story.
  • Make a start. One hour a day minimum and try to build this up. Keep re-reading your notes and more memories will flash up.

Good luck and happy writing!

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you written your memoir and shared it with others such as family and friends? Do you have a method of storing your family memories and information? Are there people you could research on social media who could provide useful information for you?

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The Author

Di Castle lectured in Further Education before publishing Grandma's Poetry Book in 2014 and Should I Wear Floral in 2017. She has won competitions at Winchester Writers Festival. Her 1950s memoir Red House to Exodus, is due out, as is Sharing the Silence, about two sisters, one profoundly deaf.

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