A Guide to Writing Your First Memoir
There are several reasons people decide to write a memoir‚Ää‚Äî‚Ääto preserve their legacy, to gain a better understanding of their past, to heal open wounds, and even to settle scores. But at the core, there‚Äôs a desire to tell your story. The motivation to write your life story is the easy part; manifesting it isn‚Äôt as simple.
This is a quick guide to get you started to tell your story.
There‚Äôs no secret formula for kicking off your memoir writing. Different methods work for different writers. However, one way that‚Äôs sure to inspire ideas is revisiting an event or time period your writing will cover. Put yourself back in the moment:
¬∑ Speak to friends and current/former colleagues from that time
¬∑ Look through old photo albums or galleries and listen to songs you associate with that period
¬∑ Sort through past correspondence (perhaps your old Hotmail address is still active?)
Then, write or record as much of your story as you can. Keep in mind, this stage isn‚Äôt about perfection. Just get the details down and speaking into a recorder is a great way to do so. (See: How Transcription Eases the Memoir Writing Process.)
Once you‚Äôve written or recorded and transcribed all your key thoughts around the pivotal events you aim to cover in your memoir, structure your story.
Structure Your Story
Though you have several precious memories, and you recall them in a specific order, it‚Äôs more important to remember that you‚Äôre telling a story. And this story should be told in an engaging and entertaining way for the reader. Your memoir is not an almanac and needs to be more than just a record of events. Structure is one way to ensure your story delivers on its promise. There are several options to choose from, depending on the type of memoir you‚Äôre writing:
¬∑ Chronological: There are instances in which telling your story in chronological order can work. Because of the simple structure, you can focus more on language, word choice, and detail. Example: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.
¬∑ Before/After: This approach gives you the chance to play with the standard structure of a chronological memoir. Your story starts before the turn of events. Then, you guide the reader through the major change and its aftermath. Let‚Äôs say you‚Äôre writing about how your life changed after college graduation. Start with your life before graduation (so the reader has something to compare the aftermath to) and work forward. Example: Dry by Augusten Burroughs.
¬∑ Character Study: Sometimes, a memoir is best told through the eyes of others. For example, if you‚Äôre writing about your relationship with your father, present character studies of all his children and not just your own impression. Each perspective helps to paint a fuller picture of the main subject. Example: Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain.
¬∑ List: Lists might seem like a clinical approach to handling your memoir but this method can be effective because you can tell your story through a series of related items, such as ‚Äúthings I learned from my grandmother‚Äù or ‚Äúways to recover from failure.‚Äù The list items work together to create a cohesive narrative. Example: ‚Äú7 Apologies I Owe My Husband‚Äù by Karen Thompson Walker.
¬∑ The Figure Eight: This method introduces two or more unrelated events to the reader but as your story continues, you connect the dots. Example: Several essays in Joan Didion‚Äôs The White Album.
¬∑ Other options: You can also experiment with voice (i.e. second person, third person), symbolism, and other narrative techniques to make your story unique.
Ongoing feedback is important throughout the writing process, and bringing friends and family with you on the journey is important. It can be a sanity check, source of input for improvement, and support.
The feedback process should start early. First, try telling the story in just 5 minutes to some of your close friends. Ask them for candid feedback (i.e. does the story need more drama, details, a different focus, etc.?). Test a few versions and pay attention to which ones resonate most with your audience. Which ones elicit the feelings you hoped for?
Then, try this exercise again, but this time, tell a 30-minute version of your story. You should start refining your story with each retelling. Take note of which plot points move the story forward and hit major emotional notes.
Remember: while receiving feedback is important, it is also pivotal to know which pieces of advice to ignore.
Overcoming the roadblocks
Once you‚Äôve selected your structure and tested it with people, it‚Äôs time to start writing. The early stages of writing can be the most exciting but it may not be too long before you experience some roadblocks. These challenges can happen to you whether you‚Äôre a naturally gifted and experienced writer or a first-timer. Here are some tips to alleviate:
¬∑ Remove your distractions. Smartphone notifications, TV, music, emails‚Ää‚Äî‚Äädistractions are everywhere. Acknowledging them can break your concentration and disrupt your process. Designate set writing times and remove these common distractions so you can focus.
¬∑ Try stream of consciousness writing. When your memoir ideas stop coming, try writing something else that‚Äôs completely unrelated. Spend 5 minutes writing about anything else (i.e. a plant, a window, a building) and then revisit your manuscript.
¬∑ Scheduling. Open ended commitments can often seem exhausting and endless. Instead, block out slots in your calendar for writing. This psychological trick helps focus your attention by adding in a constrained period of time with a deadline and can give you something to look forward to.
¬∑ Get inspired. Often taking in other creators‚Äô art can inspire your own. Visit a museum, watch a movie, or read the work of a writer whose style you admire.
¬∑ Listen to yourself. Don‚Äôt force it. If you don‚Äôt feel like writing this morning, go for a walk or go meet a friend for coffee. It may be more productive and creative to think about something else than sitting there trying to bang out words on your laptop.
¬∑ Don‚Äôt expect perfection. Your first versio doesn‚Äôt need to be perfect. It just needs to be finished, and then you can edit.
Tools you‚Äôll need
Lastly, you‚Äôll need some tools, both physical and digital, to pull your story together. Our most favorite writing tools are:
¬∑ Proofreading software: Grammarly is a free online tool that aids with punctuation, grammar, and word usage.
¬∑ A traditional thesaurus
¬∑ A contemporary dictionary
¬∑ Google Drive or Dropbox: to back up your work again
¬∑ A copy of Steven Pressfield‚Äôs The War of Art: to work through procrastination and other plights of the creative process
What are your favorite tools? Share them in the comments below.
Writing a memoir is no easy task but, with preparation and the right setup and support, you can capture your story while mitigating the risk you will abandon the writing journey.
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