Memoir Writing: Stop Thinking, Start Doing
Everyone has a story to tell, but the truth about writing a memoir is that most never get around to it. For every Angela’s Ashes, thousands of other projects are relegated to the back burner and even more ideas never touched the page at all.
Telling your story is a powerful way to share the lessons of your life, and it’s never too late to start. Whether you want to publish your memoir for the world to read or share a legacy with friends and family, it’s always a good idea to write down your experiences. You might be surprised by how far a good story can reach.
Writing Life Stories Is Just Another Chapter
You can spend the rest of your life daydreaming about it, but if you never take the time to tell your story, you’ll rob yourself and others of the wisdom you’ve gleaned over the years.
As a senior, your stories come from a broad range of experiences, and you have a more informed understanding of yourself than many first-time writers. That puts you in a better position than most. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first novel at 65 and went on to pen six more widely-loved books and have her Little House series adapted into a TV show.
Writing a memoir is your chance to leave a legacy for your loved ones and future generations who might otherwise never get the chance to meet you. Imagine how you might feel if you could read the stories of your great-great-grandparents in their own words. Most of us don’t know the names of family members a few generations back, but those who write a memoir may always be remembered.
Choosing the Theme of Your Memoir
What’s the most important thing that ever happened to you? It’s a big question, especially for seniors, but for most people, the answer is the first memory that comes to mind. That’s your theme.
If a variety of ideas came to you, congratulations on living a richer life than most. It’s important to pick just one to focus on, though, so ask yourself: Which would make the better story? Which would more people relate to?
Memoirs are built around defining moments. If you want to detail your entire life from birth, you may be looking to write an autobiography instead. These won’t normally garner interest unless you’re a public figure. A memoir is more focused, allowing for greater detail and intimacy as you take the reader through a seminal time in your life.
Your theme can be anything: The only requirement is that it changed you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story of loss, love, pain or joy, provided that important decisions were required and made. Make sure your theme starts with a version of yourself that is meaningfully different from who you are today; readers want to watch you grow into the person you became.
Treat your memoir as a novel. Take people on a journey and make sure your story pays off in the end. Once you’ve got your theme, it’s time to start writing.
Where to Begin Telling Your Story
If a memoir is a novel, then it would behoove you to take the advice of great novelists. For your story to grab the reader, you have to get into the driving conflict as quickly as possible. Usually, this means starting in the middle of the action.
That doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything before your pivotal moment. Memoirs, unlike autobiographies, don’t have to play out chronologically, so you can jump back and forth in time as you please. This gives you more control over pacing and lets you hide information from the reader until your story demands you reveal it.
Think of your lowest point or the moment that forced you down a new path, and start as close to that as possible. When the reader experiences this with you, they’re ready to understand how you got there and where it took you. You don’t have to visit your darkest day in the opening paragraph, but if you don’t get there by the end of the first chapter, you’ll risk losing the reader’s attention.
Don’t worry too much when you start writing. Explore your memories of that defining moment in detail, writing everything down. You can come back later to refine it.
Writing Prompts to Get Things Started
If you’re still struggling to write those opening paragraphs, you might try one of these helpful prompts designed to get things moving.
- Find a photo from that time. Look at the details and write about what happened that day.
- Consider any “firsts” you experienced. Your first kiss with a lover or your first day at a new job, for example, can evoke strong memories and writing.
- Have you kept in touch with friends from the past? Talk about them, who they are now and the way they used to be.
- What kind of car were you driving? If you took transit, what was your route?
- Was there anything happening in the news at the time?
- How did you dress? What was your hairstyle?
- Do you still have anything you owned back then? Take it out of storage, dust it off and talk about it. Perhaps write about how you got it.
- What music were you listening to? Did you attend any great concerts?
- What was unique about the time period? Rotary phones, dial-up modems — write about anything to set the scene.
Golden Rules for Writing a Memoir
Every memoirist has to keep some rules in mind as they work on their legacy, and it’s essentially the same set of rules for a novelist. If you’re not entirely confident in your ability to tell the tale, these basic tenets should help.
Show, Don’t Tell
If there is a single rule to writing engaging stories, this is it. It’s best to let the reader discover the point you’re trying to make rather than explain it to them. Don’t tell them how something felt; make them feel it by describing your experience. Trust that they are walking in your shoes and don’t need to be told how to process information.
The Reader Is the Protagonist
In the case of a memoir, where you are the central character, this means the reader has to relate to what you’re going through and put themselves in your position. While the story is ultimately about your personal experiences, no matter how unique those moments are, it should be possible for others to identify with them.
Keep It Simple
Use as few words as you can. It’s okay to get into a bit of stylistic prose here and there, but whenever you finish a chapter, go back and cut the unnecessary fluff. It’s something that even great writers struggle with, but when a story is honed to its essential elements, it’s easier and more enjoyable to read.
Read, Read, Read
Pick up a copy of a memoir that interests you, and don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from it. See how the author invites the reader into their world and the things they choose to focus on. No matter how many tips you read about writing, you’ll never get better advice than from the work of a successful memoirist.
Never Lose Hope
You may want to give up or at least put your story aside for a break when writing seems to falter or become harder to accomplish. Resist that temptation. Once you’ve shelved the project, picking it back up can be as difficult as starting in the first place. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing this process through to completion, and you can do it if you write every day. It could be a page or a single paragraph, but if you chip away at it, you’ll get there.
Start Writing Your Memoir Today
Mon Ami connects seniors with students who want to be involved in your life’s story. Whether you need a writing buddy to help keep things on track or just somebody to chat with and bounce ideas off of as you recall your past, you can find an activity companion who is genuinely interested in writing a memoir with seniors like yourself.
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