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6 Memoir Writing Questions–and Some Tips

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As a memoir coach, I observe how memoirists struggle with how to begin, what to include, and how to deal with family and friends. People are inspired to write a memoir because they have something significant they want to share.–a memoir is a story written to be shared with others.

I compiled the top six questions that memoir writers ask, questions that all memoir writers must solve as they write their life stories.

  • “Where do I start?”
  • “What do I include?”
  • “Should I just copy my journals?”
  • “What makes my life interesting to other people?”
  • “Do I have to write a whole book?” (Gasp.)
  • “What will my family say?”

Where to start? List the significant turning points, or moments of change, in your life. It might include the death of your grandfather or the day you fell in love. Perhaps it’s the moment you found out you were adopted or the day you discovered you were pregnant. We have many of these moments in our lives. Ask this question: when did my life take a turn from the direction it was going? When were the moments of profound change?

Make lists of these turning points and begin writing. Choose one that grabs you emotionally and go with it. You do NOT have to write in any kind of chronological order. Let the “hot” stories guide you to your next scene.

  • What do I include? This is a big question. To craft a memoir you must choose from the overwhelming details in your life. If you begin with turning points, include only what is necessary to give the reader an experience in scene of what happened. You need to interleaf action and feeling, and use sensual details such as taste, sound, texture and description to create a world the reader can enter.
  • Should I just copy my journals? A journal is not a story, unless the journal was written with a reader in mind—but that’s not what a journal is for. A journal is meant to be private and invites random writing that does not include details because the writer already knows them, nor is it planned or shaped.

A memoir is an artistic combining of significant moments to construct a story that brings a reader into your world. Through your writing, they identify with you and have an emotional experience.

  • What makes my life interesting to other people? People who read memoirs want to understand themselves better by entering into someone else’s story to find out how they lived and worked things out. Stop worrying about whether your life will be interesting to others, and go about your business of finding the turning points that are significant to you. Writing a memoir is a way for you to learn about yourself and to see your life in new ways. Stay in the flow of writing.  Trust it to lead you into the heart of your story, and that story will vibrate with life and be interesting to others.
  • Write a book? Gasp.” Yes, that is how I felt every time I thought of writing a memoir. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of my task stalled me for a long time, until one of my mentors said, “Just write one vignette, small story at a time. Keep it small, focused, and about something important to you.”

That gave me permission to stop being so grandiose in my expectations about writing a book that I was scared into silence. I began writing one scene at a time for a few months. When I had several, I could see how I might fill in the blanks of my timeline. I didn’t know where my story ended—I was still living my story as I wrote it! As I saw the themes emerge as I wrote, I discovered the arc of my book and the ending.

After you capture some turning point stories, you may find yourself with several personal essays that you can send out for publication. Each vignette or chapter is a story, with a desire, conflict, and resolution. Shape your memories and your stories so they have dramatic form. You will find out that you have many small jewels of your life that can be shared.

  • What will your family do when they find out you are writing a memoir? It depends on your family! Some family members get rattled and defensive, wondering if they will be portrayed fairly. They don’t want their secrets to be revealed and claim you don’t have the “correct” version of the family history. If you share your memoir with family may censor yourself, or try to please everyone–which is impossible. Remember this is YOUR story, and it has to be written from your point of view with your feelings and reactions.

I tell memoir writers to create a “safe sacred space” while they create the first draft. It’s important to guard your creativity from prying eyes. Our early sketches are fragile like small sprouts, and need to be protected .

            The most important thing is to begin writing your memoir today! Select your turning points and write 500 words! Write 500 words-2 pages three times a week and you will be amazed at how quickly you get your memoir written.

 

 

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3 Responses to 6 Memoir Writing Questions–and Some Tips

  1. Linda Joy, I was interested in the part on journaling as I kept one during our year in Belize and turned that into my memoir. What a tough assignment that was. I had 690 pages on the computer and it took me six years to finally turn it into a book . I questioned what to keep and what to chuck, all the time. It wasn’t until I hired a wonderful story structure editor, that I knew my message and then I knew what I could get rid of.

  2. Linda Joy, thanks so much for this post. I know I’ve read these tips before but when I’m writing, I’m always questioning memories and truth remembered, will it hurt someone else in the family, etc. I’m working hard on understanding that it’s my story and I need to tell my version. Reading your own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, has helped me understand a lot about what goes into writing a really good memoir. Thanks for all you do for all of us writers!

  3. Such a helpful post. Thank you. I’m hitting a few road blocks, and I’m realizing – I’m the one putting them up.

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