Writing a memoir is not easy.
Writing a memoir requires a lot of time and energy—but you can do it. You can succeed in writing a memoir. Many people just like you have succeeded in doing so already.
I want to share a system with you for getting started on writing a memoir.
As with so many projects you might undertake, you can reinvent the wheel or you can plug into a system that has been shown to work. My Memoir Network has been helping people just like you to write personal and family stories since 1988 and our proven system can help you, too, to write a memoir.
The system that I have found to be best for launching new writers—and many practiced writers, too—has three parts to it.
1. When writing a memoir, create a memory list.
A Memory List is a list of everything you remember either in your life or in the life of the person you are writing about or, instead of memory listing an entire life, you can choose a part of a life—the period you are currently writing about. In fact, I usually ask people to chose some small period of their intended memoir and To make a Memory List of that time.
What does the Memory List contain? The Memory List contains anything you can remember: from the small details—“I had a red tricycle”—to the very important—“my father died when I was nine.” Every distinct item on the list should be on a different line and ought to have at least 3 to 5 words so that you will remember the memory later. Two months in the future, “hat” may not bring your uncle’s fishing hat to mind, but “Uncle Bert’s fishing hat” will remind you exactly of what you wanted to write about.
2. Start writing a memoir from anywhere you want to start.
Many writers think they have to start from where they presume the story will begin or ought to begin. This is not however the best approach. The reader’s experience of beginning to read your memoir on page 1 and your experience of beginning to write your memoir are almost always not the same.
Start writing your story from whatever memory most impels you to write. (We write best, after all, when we are viscerally interested in what we are writing about.) Where that story that now most interests you will fit into the whole of your memoir may become apparent only later. Do not worry about that now. Your first written piece may very well fit in at the beginning of your memoir, and then it might fit in better at page 115. The placement of a story into the whole of the text is a task for later. To each period of your writing there is an appropriate task. Writing a story goes before finding the place of a story in the whole of your memoir.
3. In my writing a memoir system, it is ok—and probably best—to write in short segments, vignettes and scenes.
Many writers feel they must write entire stories and, even more, an entire memoir from the offset. This belief that a writer has to be writing completed pieces in one shot—even an entire book of memoir—can be paralyzing. The writer who writes this way becomes burdened by the seemingly-huge task of “writing my memoir.” The task of writing a memoir then becomes OVERWHELMING—almost superhuman. Let me explain.
Every memoir is a collection of stories, vignettes and scenes. In a sense, we might call a memoir an anthology of stories or a collection of stories. No one ever sits down to write a book. We all write only parts of a book. If you can be thinking in terms of writing only parts of your memoir—and rewarding yourself for having succeeded at that part, you will find the whole of writing a memoir a lot easier.
All of my own books have always been written in parts. Just like you, I would have been daunted if, from the onset, I had dwelt on the thought of writing a memoir in its entirely. Imagine sitting down and thinking, “Here I go on the composition of 300 pages that will take me two years to finish.” I don’t know about you but assigning myself that big of a task would dampen my spirits a bit. Instead I always focus on writing parts of a book. “Today, I will write about the time that…”
My three pillars
In conclusion, let me repeat that my three pillars for writing a memoir success—the Memory List, starting anywhere you want to start, and writing a memoir in parts and pieces—will work for you as they have for so many others.
There are other pillars when you do a rewrite and when you do a final edit. I will share these with you at another time.
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Meanwhile, remember that “inch my inch it’s a cinch. Yard by yard, it’s hard.”
Keep writing and stay in the memoir conversation.
We have helped many people whose lives demanded to be recorded but who themselves were not writers to create interesting and well-written memoirs.
We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.
Over time, your story develops into a memoir—one that you have shaped at every stage of the writing process.
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