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Most people writing a memoir are learning to write while also excavating the terrain of memories and learning about elements of the past can be painful. 

If you have started your memoir, or are about to start, you know that writing a book is a journey with several stages. As you go through the stages, you build one upon the other to get to your goal. As you write, the journey will change you. It’s important to understand what a memoir is—and isn’t. 

A memoir is a story with structure, a theme, and a reason for a reader to be engaged. Memoir writers are challenged by the many layers that compose a memoir: from finding memories and confronting truths—the psychological aspects of memoir writing—to craft and skill questions: What is a scene, how do I structure my memoir, can I just copy my journal and have a memoir?

If you keep a few things in mind, you can begin your memoir journey—something you’ve always wanted to do. The idea is to keep your writing to the basics, keep it simple, and give yourself permission to write. Then celebrate your courage!

What a Memoir Is:

  • A memoir draws upon the skills and tools of fiction in presenting a story—with scenes, dialogue, sensual details, creating a world for the reader.
  • A memoir is not a journal. In a journal, your personal writing is without a structure and written to be kept private. A memoir is written for an audience.
  • A memoir has an overarching message that a reader is left with, the reason for the book.
  • A memoir is a focused topic or theme.
  • A memoir has significant messages and takeaways for the reader—it’s not just about you and what happens to you.

Tips for memoirists, from my book Journey of Memoir—The Three Stages of Memoir Writing

  • A memoir is your story—no one else’s. Write from the “I” point of view about your experiences, feelings, and perspectives.
  • You’re writing to discover, not only to report. You will be discovering memories, truths, and events that you don’t always understand.
  • A memoir is about memory and how you understand events and inner truths. Your memories are unique to you. Even if you write about an event where there are twelve witnesses, chances are that each person saw, heard, and interpreted different things about that event.
  • You will write your memoir like a novel with scenes and plot using the tools of good fiction.
  • You will learn about how story works, and how to bring a template of structure and story to the long complexity that is your life. Your memoir will focus on a slice of that life. A memoir is more than a journal—it’s a story to be read by others.
  • As your memoir delivers d takeaways that are of value to others, you are creating a universal story.

How to Begin:

  1. List the ten most significant events in your life.
  2. Chart your significant moments or events on your timeline to see when they occurred and get a visual picture of how events clustered together or were spread out in time.
  3. Write each significant moment as a story.
  4. Write using scenes—a specific moment in time, interleafed with reflection and your inner experience.
  5. Write quickly, write in twenty minute bursts without editing or censoring.
  6. Use Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” permission to write without editing—you can edit later. Don’t crush your creative sparks!
  7. Honor your point of view and your truths as you write. 
  8. Write another vignette the next day.
  9. Do this exercise for ten days and then see what you have!
  10. Be Brave—Write Your Story!