THE SINGLE MOST common question I’m asked about writing a memoir is, “How do I start?”
How do you begin when there’s so much to say, so many pictures and memories and thoughts rumbling around in your head? How do you sort out the core of your story amidst the multitudes of anecdotes? And how do you write this story in a way that will be interesting to others?
One of the mistakes that beginning memoir writers often make is to worry too much at the start about the writing itself — about the crafting of the work, rather than the substance of it. They want to write the perfect first sentence or paragraph and, once they begin, get caught up in editing that first page to death. Or they write in the stilted, formal manner they learned in school, destroying any sense of authenticity. Or they try to write about it all at once.
Before you start writing that memoir, understand that most of your writing in the beginning will be just for you — think of it as “pre-writing” — a necessary part of any creative written work. You need to write about all the things you’re going to write about. You need to establish your authentic and comfortable writing voice — and you can only achieve that by writing a lot.
How to Start
Explore your reasons for writing
Why do you want to write your life story?
I ask this question because it’s important to understand your core motivations as fully as possible. Maybe you believe your story will inspire others and give them hope. Maybe you have a great sense of humor about life and just want to entertain and make people laugh. Or maybe you have had a unique experience you want to tell the world about. Whatever your reasons, at the root of all life writing is a desire to be heard; we all want to be seen for who we are and leave our mark in the world.
And that’s where memoir, out of all the literary forms, shines: it provides a unique way to speak to the world from your heart, straight and true. To share your life experiences with others in a way that inspires and entertains and maybe — just maybe — will make a difference in someone else’s life.
So, start by writing about why you want to share your story with the world. Forget any lofty ambitions — your memoir won’t save the world and you most likely won’t be a New York Times bestselling author. So what are the real reasons? Be open and vulnerable with yourself.
When I began writing my first memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I wasn’t even sure why I wanted to write it. I only knew that I had a unique mother, a unique childhood, and a unique life — and that, somehow, in that unique life I also shared with other women the universal experience of the deep love and conflict between mothers and daughters. I wrote to understand my mother, myself, and our perceptions of life and each other. I wanted to dig into her psyche through her letters and journals, see her life through her eyes, and contrast that with my experience of her. I felt, rather than knew, that my story would interest others. In short, I felt compelled to write my version of our story and hoped that others would find it compelling as well.
So what are your reasons? Spend a lot of time with this. Write it out. Explore all your motivations, the pain or longing beneath your desire to write. What drives you to write at this time in your life? What might you or the world lose if you don’t write your story? Who are you writing for? Who will benefit? What are your fears about writing your story and in what ways are your reasons for writing stronger than your fears?
Clarify the core message of your story
Once you’ve explored your reasons for writing, spend some time answering this next question: What is the core truth or message of my story?
What is it you want to say?
Write about your primary message (the thrust of your story) until you can distill it into a sentence or short paragraph.
Examples: “I’m writing about my addiction and recovery and how there’s hope for everyone,” or “I’m writing about the search for my biological mother and what happened when I found her — a story of loss and redemption,” or “I’m writing about my travel misadventures in South America during the 90s to show what life is like in other cultures and provide some humor in the telling.”
Start with the burning moments
Then, keeping your core story idea in mind, make a list of what I call “burning moments.” These are the memories that haunt you or come up over and over again when you are thinking about your life (and particularly when you are thinking about your core story or message). Burning moment memories are the ones that tend to carry an emotional charge of some sort — joyful or painful.
So, make that list, and as you do so, name the facts of each memory with sincerity, simplicity, and without rancor or blame: “This is what happened to me. This is what I did in response.” Or, simply, “This is what I remember about what happened.” Writing about your burning moments in this way can be an incredibly powerful exercise.
Think of these burning moments as a rough outline of the scenes you need to write for your memoir.
Once you have your clarified your core story and your reasons for writing, and you’ve made a list of those burning moments, you are ready to begin writing. Again, keep in mind that this is all a form of pre-writing, so don’t worry about whether the writing is “good enough.” The point is to get what’s in your head and heart onto the page.
You don’t need to start at the beginning of your life or of your story. I advise selecting the burning moment that calls out to you and beginning there.
Focus on your experience in that moment: your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, images, sensory details such as smells, sounds, sights. Write down as many of these details as possible. Even in list form. There is no need to write prose at this point.
Write your truth from your heart. Now is not the time to worry about what anyone else will think. No one else will read what you are writing unless you offer it to them. So, write about the experience of that memory with as much detail, honesty, and clarity as you can.
When you’re done, put that aside and pick the next burning moment and write about that.
Over time, you’ll accumulate scenes that are part of your story. Themes will emerge — as will your voice — and you will begin seeing some order to your writing.
Of course, there’s much more to memoir writing than what I’ve outlined here, but start with your whys and your whats and you’ll know when you’re ready to dive deeper.
If you would like to receive more guidance as you begin writing your memoir, you may be interested in my From Memories to Memoirs online course.