How To Start A Memoir

One of my jobs is to host an Ask the Writing Guru session at the public library where people can come and have their writing questions answered for free. I help with letters, books, essays, applications–in other words, a little of everything. I have had a few students who have wanted to write their memoirs and have asked me where to start. For that I have a simple answer.

Method 1: The first thing you want to do when writing a memoir is figure out what time period you wish to cover. Memoirs cover a portion of time while biographies and autobiographies cover a lifetime. Some people write multiple memoirs about different times in their lives because they have had events impact them in different ways. So if your memoir is going to span much of your life, you might want to figure out how to shorten it or divide it into pieces.

The second step is to work with your memories. Write them down on note cards. You don’t have to go into great detail, just write “That time I went shopping with Grannie and she bought me the bunny.” You’ll have time for elaborating on that memory and what it meant to you later. The idea is to remember as much as you possibly can, as many details as you can muster, and put them all on note cards. You don’t have to remember everything in chronological order. You don’t have to remember everything on the same day. You can work backwards if that is what helps you. Just get those memories down.

The third step is to find a large space to spread those memories out–the bed, the floor, a large corkboard. You can layer them, group them together, put them in chronological order. It doesn’t matter what you do with them except that you need to organize them. You need to have some kind of system so you can find what you need when you need it. Many people like chronological order, but grouping like with like works, too.

Make sure they are all relevant to the story you want to tell. If they aren’t relevant, set them aside. You want to stay on track when writing a memoir, not go on tangents. Then, keeping them in the order you have assigned for them, pick them up into one large pile. You might want to fasten this pile with something like a rubber band so the cat doesn’t sabotage it (that’s what would happen in my house).

Once you have your memories written down and in some semblance of order, go card by card and start writing about them. Write down the details you remember and how that memory affected you. Tell the full story of that memory. Start with the first one, then go to the second one, and so forth and so on. Link them all together as you go. Tell how one relates to the next, even if the relationship is chronology. Once you get to your last memory, congratulate yourself because you have a rough draft!

Method 2: Use a digital recorder to record your memories in any kind of order. If you have voice to text software, so much the better. You will still need to organize your thoughts because the recordings will probably be out of order or contain irrelevant material. I record using an app on my phone just to get the memories out and what they mean, but I do not have voice to text. So I follow most of the same steps listed above to organize my thoughts and get them on the computer. The difference is that when I speak into the recorder, I am composing my memory and it’s relationship to the story rather than waiting to do that.

I still have to transcribe it, however, which is a huge inconvenience. I have been looking into getting Dragon Naturally Speaking software for my computer, but I usually compose on my phone, not my computer. All you techie types out there–tell me if there is a feature I am missing because if I can use my phone, I will likely ditch my other app. I have not found a Dragon App on Google Play. There was one on Apple and I miss it.

I hope if you have been thinking about composing your memoir these tips help you organize your thoughts. Memories can be confusing and disorganized. Have a great day, all!


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