Ten Tips for Starting Your Memoirs

Your children are begging you to write down the family stories you told them at the dinner table while they were growing up, but you haven’t the faintest idea how to begin. Writing about your whole life is a daunting task. Besides, your life was ordinary, not very interesting, who’d want to read about that?

First of all, no life is ordinary and your life stories are interesting because they bring your unique perspective to the events. Your ordinary life was colored by world events—wars, economic downturns, social and political changes—that give your stories historical significance. Your stories are peopled by the characters who influenced your life.

As for how to begin, here are ten tips to get you started.

1. Create a life list. List all the major events in your life—every move, every job, every school, graduations, deaths, births, marriages, milestones. You’ll be surprised how quickly your list will grow to 100 or 200 items. Now, pick ten of the most significant events to write stories about.

2. Take five sheets of paper and label each one in five-year increments. At the top of the first sheet write 0-5, on the second 6-10, and so on. Now, fill each page, front and back, with everything you can remember from that five-year period. For example, on the 0-5 sheet, you’ll write about when you were born, where your family was living at the time, how many siblings you had, what your father did for a living—anything you can think of within the first five years of your life. When the page is full, move on to the next five years.

3. Write your memoir one story at a time. Don’t feel like you have to write your whole life story all at once in perfect chronological order. Write your life story as a collection of vignettes, short pieces that collectively add up to the story of your life.

4. Keep your stories in a binder. You don’t need to write your stories in any particular order, but whenever you do write a story, put it in a loose-leaf binder. After awhile, you’ll start to see patterns emerge and you can group your stories by related topic.

5. Use memory triggers and writing prompts. A memory trigger can be something like “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or “how did you celebrate the holidays when you were a child?” A writing prompt can be “describe your childhood bedroom.” You can download a free Memory List Question Book full of memory triggers at http://www.turningmemories.com/ebookstore.html

6. Use a framework for your stories. Write about all the jobs you’ve held, or cars you’ve owned and the memories associated with each vehicle; write about your grammar school years or your high school years; if you moved around a lot, write about each house you’ve lived in. Using a framework can help focus your stories.

7. Create character sketches of people you knew. Give a physical description, describe their personalities, tell how they influenced you and fit into your life.

8. Set aside time for writing your memoir. It can be as little as an hour a week. Write one or two pages in each session. Over the course of a year, those pages will add up.

9. Don’t worry about the writing, just get the story down. You can polish the story later.

10. Join a memoir writing group. Hearing the stories of other memoir writers will help trigger memories you had forgotten. Sharing your stories with others will help you fill in the details you might have missed.

You can write your life story. Your children will thank you for it.