WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING MEMOIR, the most frequently asked question I receive is, “How do I start?” My brief answer is, “You start by starting. You write what comes. Don’t worry about the form or the content at this point. Just write.”
And that’s true. But what would-be memoirists really want to know is:
- Of all the events in my life, which do I choose to write about?
- Will anyone want to read about my life, my story?
- Should I make an outline first?
- Where should I start?
- I’m new at writing … how will I know if my writing is good enough?
Here are my answers to those questions. They are not necessarily THE answers or all encompassing, and other writing teachers may tell you something different (and equally valuable). But these are the answers that have worked for my students who are anxious about beginning their memoir-writing journeys.
- When writing about your life, begin by writing about the moments that haunt you, or come up over and over again when you are talking about your life. I call these “Burning Moments,” and they are those memories that carry an emotional charge of some sort — joyful or painful. I always encourage my students to make lists of those burning moments, even if the memories are fragmented or elusive.
- Yes, others will want to read about your life. Everyone’s life story is important and interesting when presented in a way that can be related to by others — and that is where the art of writing comes into play. But when you’re first starting to write, getting the events down on paper is more important than the art. When learning to paint, you must dip the brush into the paint and splash color on the page before you can learn how to control the brush. The same is true of writing: you must write badly before you can learn to write well.
- With memoir writing, I discourage outlining. Other teachers may disagree with me, but I believe a memoir is a journey of growth and discovery for the narrator (your character) in the story. Transformation of the narrator is one of the most important aspects of memoir, and this actually occurs in the writer through the emergence of symbols and themes during the writing process. If you outline your story ahead of time, you may constrain or even prevent this process of discovery and creation, thus missing out on what could make the story most compelling for others. Memoir writing is a much messier (and I think challenging) process than, say, writing a novel or a nonfiction how-to book on knitting.
- My favorite method is to start by writing about one of your burning moments. Write about it — just to get that out of your system — then write the moment itself as a scene, including descriptions of the place in which it occurs, the people present, actions, and dialogue.
Or, if that seems too complicated, start by writing a letter. Select someone you know (or imagine) would be interested in your story. Then start writing. You can use one of the following prompts to get going.
Dear [insert name of person],
There are some things I’d really like you to know about me, because… [insert reason], or It all started when…, or In the beginning…, or As I look back on my life…
- Will what you write be “good enough?” Even if you’re not new to writing, the answer is no, it won’t — not at first. What you write initially is a first draft, a combination of good writing and bad writing — mostly bad. There will be scenes and lots and lots of exposition (where you are talking about what happened) that will need to be cut or refined or expanded upon. And along the way you will need to get feedback from a trusted friend or two, a critique group, and an editor. But don’t let this “not good enough” part of writing stop you from writing. It’s a normal part of the process.
In a future article, I’ll talk about about how to keep writing when the going gets rough. For now, the bottom line is to start by starting. Your memoir is, after all, a conversation with your reader. And if you can write a letter, you can begin today.
For more memoir writing coaching and instruction, check out WritingThroughLife.com’s Online Memoir and Legacy Writing Classes.