How to Write a Memoir

by qwertyportne (orginally posted to Non-Fiction)

“To look backward is to refresh the eye, to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” ~Margaret Barber


Without reflection, life is just a string of incidents connected by the passage of time. Like salmon swimming upstream, we get so immersed in the business and busyness of life we don’t see how the circumstances we encountered and the choices we made became a story with a plot and a point.

Everybody has a story to tell: children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged men and women, seniors–even an unborn child. So don’t wait until you are older. Start transforming memories into memoirs now. Start a diary. Ask family members to tell you about their lives. Imagine the satisfaction of saying, years later, “I’m so glad I asked grandpa about his career in the Navy.”

If you’re not a writer, you’ll be happy to hear that writing skills are less important than telling your stories in your own way. “My father,” said William Zinsser, “who didn’t try to be a writer, was a more natural writer than I am, with my constant fiddling and fussing.”

Writing a memoir creates a mirror that reflects how life changed you. It’s connecting the dots between yesterday and today to reveal a path into tomorrow. It’s an adventure and a hero’s journey. So let the adventure begin. Sail the seven seas of yesterday and return with ways to weave your past into your future.

“How long has it been,” asked Ray Bradbury, “since you wrote a story where your real love, hate, prejudice and passion slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the worst and best things in your life? When are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”

Alice discovered a Wonderland by following a rabbit down its hole and Dorothy discovered a Wizard by following the yellow brick road. Both came back changed, and you will too, by following a vivid memory into yesterday. Revisit the heroes of your life.

One of them is you!

So good luck! No, luck is just a happy accident. I wish you serendipity, which is finding something you were not looking for while searching for something else. May your memoir become that something else. Something you didn’t start with when you began putting sentences together. Something over flowing with the powerful, poignant drama of discovering yesterday in the rear-view mirror of today. Something that blooms beyond a mere sum of its parts.

May your memoir be an intentional serendipity!


Search… your memory for a person, a place or a phase of your life that speaks strongly to your here and now. Use photographs and other nostalgic keys to unlock the door to yesterday.

Brainstorm… a tree of thoughts, feelings and ideas that grow, like branches and leaves, from that one powerful memory.

Transform… your tree into a rough outline of the story you want to tell. Create the bones of a beginning, a middle and an end.

Free Write… your rough outline into a rough draft. Add muscle and blood to the bones of your rough outline by plumbing the emotional depths of your memory. Free-writing is a playful, creative process using your heart, not your head. Tell your editor to sit down and shut up.

Rewrite… your rough draft to create a powerful, polished memoir. Editing is a criteria-based process of culling and clarifying every word, sentence and paragraph with your head, not your heart, to produce a memoir with the qualities of a compelling story.

Discover… what your memoir taught you about life, yourself and the people and places that inhabit your memoir. Writing a memoir connects the dots between your past, your present and your future. Regardless of why you wrote your memoir, or who you wrote it for, you will not be able to isolate your present from what you discovered in your past, and that will change your future ~ it might change your memoir, too.


Beginning Grabs Attention

Ignites curiosity, hints at the theme
1st person so readers identify with you
Powerful image of main character
Sets stage for coming attractions
Fits time/place into larger context
Challenges main character faces

Middle Holds Attention

How/why problem escalates to conflict
Conflict is inner and outer struggle
Portrays character as real, not flat
Unveils significance of events
No lengthy detours from core issues
Attitudes and actions are clear
Chronological & emotional flow clear
Enables figurative, sensory presence
Climax revealed as choices struggled with
Consequences come from choices made and actions taken

End Releases Tension

Conclusion ties up loose ends
But foreshadows possible future
Life-changing effect of character’s struggle
Gives readers something for their lives

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