Memoir writers need to go through several stages of writing to create a complete story that’s ready to be published. First, you write the emotional draft(s) where you find your memories and spill out your story. Next, as you find out what the stories are that land on the page—they may not be the same ones that floated in your head all those years—you can begin to craft your memoir so a reader can follow it, so you have a story and not just a series of disconnected events.

These days, the convention is for memoir writers to write their story using fictional tools such as scenes, dialogue, sensual details, and to learn about the craft of story structure. In this post, we are going to look at how to find the main events—the turning points of your life—since a memoir is not an autobiography. You do not start at the beginning and write about everything. You memoir needs a theme, and it needs to touch upon significant events where you learned something important that others can learn about.

You are writing your memoir first for your own understanding, but if you want to create a publishable work, then you need to think of the reader in the later drafts. You need to invite the reader—who does not know and love you already—into your story.

Your turning points are the emotional hot spots of your life. Knowing these will help to sort through the millions of memories that you have your memoir, and the turning points will help to build the spine of your memoir structure. These are the moments of BIG CHANGE, the times when your life took a turn in another direction, propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces, such as a spiritual awakening, a moment of complete clarity, or you might think of outer forces such as an illness, a move, a sudden loss.

A turning point can be a powerful moment of utter happiness, a marriage, traveling to another country, or the birth of a child. These are special times that have deep meaning to you, and that made a difference in the course of your life. Your turning points are the times that taught you a lesson, times that woke you up, times that shaped you into the person that you are now.

Finding your turning points will help you to focus on these special moments and capture them in a list, which will then be plotted on a timeline.

Ask yourself: what moments ended the life I was living before, and changed the direction of my life? In a fictional story or a movie, we know that the plot is going to change when someone new wanders into town, when this new person shows up, we expect there to be important changes or we would not, as readers/viewers be shown this event. Some of your turning points may be meeting someone new—a teacher, an older person who influenced your life. Or it might be a lover, a partner, someone who taught you how to relate differently.

  • Make lists in your writing journal about these moments.
  • Use your photo albums to refresh your memory, or old letters.
  • Sometimes visiting a place where important things happened can help us remember these important moments.
  • Start with 10-15 of these turning point moments. Remember, you can’t use everything that happened to you. If you are not sure about the theme or focus of your memoir, this is a great way to start digging into your memories and begin to capture important things that are full of energy, full of the energy of life’s changes, whether you judge these changes to be for better or worse.
  • This turning point list is your resource for writing your stories.
  • Plot them on a timeline so you can see the relationship between event and timing.
  • Freewrite these stories. That means to put your pen on the page or your fingers on the keyboard and write for about 15-20 minutes without stopping.

I love Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. She invites the juicy creative aspects of ourselves to come out and play.

Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first—at least for some part of the day every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it.

When you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free, free and not anxious.

All creativity experts, from Julia Cameron to Rollo May advise writers to let ‘er rip, the way to bypass the inner critic, and a great way to enjoy the first fruits of your writing.

Finding your turning points offers you a way to focus on topics, emotional themes, and begin what might be the spine of the plot of your memoir. If you have begun your memoir, make a list of the turning points that you have included. This can clarify your progress.

Enjoy the discovery process, and begin your list today.

More details about these exercises can be found in my book The Power of Memoir.