By Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. NAMW President
As a memoir coach, I see how memoirists struggle with how to begin, what to include, and how to deal with family and friends around writing a memoir. Most people are inspired to write a memoir because they have something significant they want to share, experiences and lessons they want to share. Some writers have been journaling for years, but a journal is not a story. A memoir is written to be shared with others, choosing the events and situations to shape into a story.
I compiled the top six questions that memoir writers ask, questions that all memoir writers must solve as they write their life stories.
- “Where do I start?”
- “What do I include?”
- “Should I just copy my journals?”
- “What makes my life interesting to other people?”
- “Do I have to write a whole book?” (Gasp.)
- “What will my family say?”
1. Where to start? List the significant turning points, or moments of change, in your life. It might include the death of your grandfather or the day you fell in love. Perhaps it’s the moment you found out you were adopted or the day you discovered you were pregnant. We have many of these moments in our lives. Ask this question: when did my life take a turn from the direction it was going? When were the moments of profound change?
Make lists of these turning points and then begin writing. Choose one that grabs you emotionally and go with it. You do NOT have to write in any kind of chronological order. Allow your emotions to be your guide.
2. What do I include? This is a big question. To craft a memoir you must choose from the overwhelming details in your life. If you begin with turning points, include only what is necessary to give the reader an experience in scene of what happened. You need to interleaf action and feeling, and use sensual details such as taste, sound, texture and description to create a world the reader can enter.
3. Should I just copy my journals? A journal is not a story, unless the journal was written with a reader in mind—but that’s not what a journal is for. A journal is meant to be private and invites random writing that does not include details because the writer already knows them, nor is it planned or shaped.
A memoir is an artistic combining of significant moments to construct a text that brings a reader into your world and gives them an emotional experience.
4. What makes my life interesting to other people? People who read memoirs want to understand themselves better by entering into someone else’s story to find out how they lived and worked things out. Stop worrying about whether your life will be interesting to others, and go about your business of finding the turning points that are significant to you. Writing a memoir is a way for you to learn about yourself and to contemplate your life in new ways. You may be surprised by what you discover. Stay in the flow of the process of writing. It’s your friend and guide. Trust it to lead you into the heart of your story, and that story will vibrate with life and be interesting to others.
5. “Write a book? Gasp.” Yes, that is how I felt every time I thought of writing a memoir. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of my task stalled me for a long time, until one of my mentors said, “Just write one vignette, small story at a time. Keep it small, focused, and about something important to you.”
That gave me permission to stop being so grandiose in my expectations about writing a book that I was scared into silence. I began writing one scene at a time for a few months. When I had quite a few, I could see how I might fill in the blanks of my timeline. I didn’t know where my story ended—after all, I was still living my story as I wrote it! As I saw the themes emerge as I wrote, I discovered the arc of my book and discovered the appropriate ending.
After you capture some turning point stories, you may find yourself with several personal essays that you can send out for publication. Each vignette or chapter is a story, with a desire, conflict, and resolution. Shape your memories and your stories so they have dramatic form. You will find out that you have many small jewels of your life that can be shared.
6. What will your family do when they find out you are writing a memoir? It depends on your family! Some family members get worried, rattled, and defensive, wondering if they will be portrayed fairly, worrying about secrets being revealed or if you have the “correct” version of the family history. If you share your memoir with family and friends while you are writing it, you run the risk of censoring what you have to say to keep the peace, or trying to please everyone, which is impossible. Remember this is YOUR story, and it has to be written from your point of view with your feelings and reactions.
I always recommend that memoir writers create what I call a “safe sacred space” while they create the first draft of their stories. It’s important to guard your creativity from prying eyes. Our early sketches are fragile like small sprouts, and need to be protected from the winds and weather of the world.
The most important thing is to begin writing your memoir today! Select your turning points and immerse yourself in the moments that shaped you. Close your eyes and see yourself at that moment. Bring it alive in your memory and write.
Thank you for all this advice. writing my story has been the strangest experience for me, and i have gone around in so many circles, but when I started writing I thought I would start somewhere but 2 days later I had written 20,000 and none of them what I had intended to write! It was like my soul needed to be heard and did it’s thing. I wrote the first 20 years in about 6 weeks and about 40K words. Then I got stuck and I worried and stressed. Then this january I decided that while the first go was good for me and showed me my voice, it was so filtered and afraid and it underplayed things and covered up too many truths. So I started again and wrote wrote wrote and again it just flowed. 86,000 words in 6 weeks and again came to a grinding holt at aged 20. … now trying to write the next parts to the story but it is way more complicated and entwined and crazy… but reading your blog has given me so much confidence that I am on the right track. I am simply trusting the process and going with it. Oh, and my psychologist said I am not allowed to worry about what the family think, we will cross that bridge when we get there… stick to safe places for now. So your advice there was very affirming as well… again thank you! Sorry for so many words, but I am so excited to find you! … downloading some of your books now for reading self care 🙂
I have a question regarding hubris. I’m a self admitted denier that I, or my story are all that spectacular. I am not unique and there are loads of people out there that have more compelling stories to tell. In short, I try to be humble and question “Who would want to read a story about me?”
On the other side of the coin I’ve had an incredible life of service with drama, setbacks, twists and achievement. My story is so rare that I’ve been called a “Unicorn.”
What can you say to someone like me that has doubt that all of this is worth it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to finish this baby, I’m over two years into it and half way through my first rewrite. But I’m fighting the “to publish or not to publish” battle. My book will certainly be controversial since I’m basically whistleblowing in a confessional against an industry that has never been written about in this light. If published I risk upending my life and the lives of my children. I promise I’m not being melodramatic. I’m doing my best to be brave in both my writing and releasing it to the world to judge.
What do you think? Can you give me advice to combat the anxiety of throwing my mea culpa into the shark tank?