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Our memoir writing exercises are different from those found on other sites. We do not like to provide ready-made writing prompts such as: “who was your favorite teacher in high school?” or “what three things did you like to do during the summer?”

Writing prompts can be entertaining, and when shared in a group, they can be fun enough, but they are an example of writing from the outside in—which promises a miss—and not from the inside out as we advocate throughout this site.

Instead of prompts, we advocate organic memoir writing exercises that are likely to lead to a deepening of your insight rather than to a titillation for your entertainment — which is what we think of most writing exercises.

Our premier writing exercise is the Memory List, but as this category demonstrate there are many other possibilities to hone your skills.

Read the many posts below to see for yourself how the memoir writing exercises we suggest are better than any writing prompt that asks you to write about something like “It’s the year 2500 and you are…”

memoir coaching

Memoir Coaching Laser-focuses on Getting Your Memoir Written Faster and Better

How does memoir coaching improve your manuscript?

“What does ‘My family was poor’ mean, ” I asked a memoir writer in a recent coaching session.

Poor?” he asked at the other end of the phone line. “What do you mean what does poor mean? Poor means poor!”

“Does poor mean you didn’t have enough to eat or does it mean you never ate out at restaurants? Does poor mean you were forced to run out on your rent or does it mean you did not have an in-ground pool?”

Clearly, descriptive always adjectives don’t mean what we think they mean!

Empty literary “calories”

On the spot, I shared with him how adjectives are empty literary “calories.” They do nothing for the story but fill up space. They pretend to be effective but are not. Every writer needs to depend on scenes, dialog, settings, characters to tell the real story.

[Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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truth telling

Telling the Hard Truth in Your Memoir–Are You Holding Back?

Are You Holding Back the Hard Truth in Your Memoir?

Your memoir needs the hard truth about life—your life—and sometimes that requires exposing yourself, getting “naked.”

I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt…. we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be willing to go naked.

—May Sarton

Wow, going around naked! Gulp! (Better hit the gym!)

But, I guess you get the idea—psychologically and emotionally naked. Your memoir needs truth telling about life—yours—and sometimes that requires exposing yourself, getting “naked.”

I would like to change the metaphor a bit, to use a metaphor that is less startling but very graphic nonetheless. It is the metaphor of the kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

I love popcorn and enjoy eating it but there always comes a moment when I get to the bottom of the bowl and the plethora of corn kernels that have been popped into delightful puffy bites gives way to the hard half-popped or not-popped-at-all kernels. These are not fun to eat. Disappointed, I walk to the trash and throw the kernels away. [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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writing prompts

Instead of A Writing Prompt – Five Tips for Creating a Memory List

As people are writing a memoir they will sometimes say, “I want to write my stories but I have forgotten so many details. Is there any way I can get them back? Should I use writing prompts or is there something instead of a writing prompt?”

There is one tool above all others that makes the experience of life writing successful. That tool is not a writing prompt: it is the Memory List. No other exercise opens up the process of life writing as quickly and as surely as the thoughtful and thorough compilation of such a list. It’s simple, and as a first step, it’s crucial.

Let me tell you about the Memory List (a general term for your list of memories).

Your Memory List is always a work in process because the more you remember and jot down, the more you’ll recall. You will return to and rework your list again and again as you write your life stories. In short, it will serve as an excellent writing prompt without being a writing prompt.

1. The Memory List consists of short memory notes (three to five words is sufficient) of people, events, relationships, thoughts, feelings, things—anything—from your past.

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archetype of your experience

Use an archetype of your experience to revive your memoir

Can an archetype of your experience refocus your memoir? “My memoir writing has grown tedious,” you bemoan. “I thought what I was writing about was exciting when I began writing. It was exciting then. I could remember so much of what happened. It was compelling. And now as the time I lived this experience recedes into the past, as the vivid memories become less vivid, I am finding it hard to continue to write. Should I give up?” [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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Writers Learning About the Memory List at a "Turning Memories Into Memoirs" Workshop

The Problem With Writing Prompts

Is there a problem with writing prompts? This is my issue with writing prompts: they tend to lead to isolated stories, stories that are searching for humor, searching to be shared with a group that is perhaps looking for entertainment. They are not, by and large, searching for meaning lost in the morass of your […]

writing a better memoir

Four Tips for Writing a Better Memoir

To write a better memoir, make use of the core memory list. The extended memory list does not make value judgments about the quality of your memories. The core memory list, however, distinguishes between two sorts of memories— the important from the unimportant.

twowomen

Memoir Interviewing

Memoir interviewing is an integral piece of research. Although you may assume you can depend on your memory when you write your lifestories—memory isn’t always as reliable as you want it to be. Interviews with relevant family members and friends can supplement your memory and broaden the perspective of your memoir.

How To Prepare For Memoir Interviewing

1) Select whom you will interview.

If your time is limited, or your family is large and offers many choices, it will be all the more important to identify a manageable number of knowledgeable relatives and friends to interview.

For example, Aunt Mary tends to talk endlessly—all afternoon if you let her. Her conversation seems to have little content as she wanders from one topic to another. Aunt Jane, on the other hand, is an incisive person whose intuition is always informing her about what things mean. Her many observations and reminiscences are usually interestingly told. Furthermore, they are consonant with your other research.

Can there be any doubt whom you will interview first—Aunt Mary or Aunt Jane? (Being nice to lonely Aunt Mary is a work of charity and it should not be confused with collecting information to write your stories.)

Another example: Cousin Luigi married into your Irish family. He is a dear old man and you love him very much, but his tales about his Italian family are irrelevant to understanding the history of your Irish ancestors. Cousin Luigi’s are not the accounts you need to collect.

2) Ascertain who else is likely to want to participate in the interview—and decide whether that person may or may not sit in.

An unexpected, or inappropriate, person can blur the focus of your interview.

For instance, your aunt by marriage, sitting in on the interview, may find what you are doing so interesting she begins to talk about her life experiences and, in doing so, may not allow your uncle (your mother’s brother) much time to talk about his childhood relationship with your grandparents and your mother. Your aunt’s experience, however interesting, will not provide the information you need to understand your grandparents and parents.

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Telling the Truth About your Life

In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with subtle—and not so subtle—messages about who we ought to be, it is a bold statement to take a stand for personal truth and authenticity.

The telling of your stories is a revolutionary act.

—Sam Keen, Writer

One of the most transformative statements an individual can make is to tell his/her story with honesty and objectivity. At its best, this is what a memoir is—a statement that declares “this is who I am, who I think of myself as being.”

Lest you think that telling the truth is only about revealing scandals and unmasking abuses, let me assure you that it is more often about smaller issues, issues more within the realm of the everyday experience. [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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Dare to Share

One of the critical steps you can take as a writer is to find ways to share your work with others. Those others might be writers, they might be friends, or they might be family members. Don’t let your hard work sit in a drawer unread. Writing is meant to be read. We write down […]

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