Ways to Begin Your Memoir

Making Memories

You’ve read the previous posts and you really want to tell your own or your family’s story. Here are some ways to get started.

 Approach: How do you want to approach your project? 

   Look through published memoirs at the library or bookstore to see how others have done it. You can find memoirs of local interest for sale in museums, gift stores, even restaurants. Leaf through such books to see how those authors dealt with their stories. Talk to friends and acquaintances who have written about their lives.

  You can also do an Internet search for online memoirs that you can view for free. This link will take you to a list of 104 sites that legally offer such e-books, free: http://www.techsupportalert.com/free-books-biography .

Purpose: Does your story have a broad-enough interest for commercial publication? Or will you write for a smaller audience? Do you have the resources to self-publish with one of the excellent short-run publishers now available? Or would you rather create a limited number of photocopied booklets for your immediate family or a PDF you can provide to family and friends as an e-book?

Start small: Choose a single topic to explore—your best friend in grade school, your first job, how your family celebrated Christmas. Sometimes a recent event can lead you back into your past to explore related memories. To organize your project, keep a list of topics you’d like to cover, and add to it as you go. You needn’t write down everything that ever happened to you. Long lists of facts, dates, and names will bore your readers, and yourself as well.

Show the personalities, appearances, and mannerisms of the people you mention. Add specific details to set the scenes, using dialogue and sensory details of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. If you let readers know the humiliation or sadness you felt at being left out of a game or your delight in receiving a long-hoped-for bike, you will inject vital emotion into your story.

Memories dull with time. Sharpen them through conversations with family members or by reviewing photos and family documents. Find timelines on the Internet, or look up old newspaper files at the library to review what was happening in the time period you’re writing about. You’ll be amazed at the memories and the details that flood back once you get started.
  Remember, life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Yours holds the makings of a great story. All you have to do is tell it.

Sharing Memories

Part Three–Telling Your Story

You Don’t Have to be a Professional to Tell Your Story

    Some fascinating reading can be found in the old diaries or letters written by ordinary people living ordinary lives.

   Years after my husband’s father passed away, Hank was thrilled to find a small book in which his dad had jotted daily events. He only wrote a sentence or two per day, but chronicled events such as his son stopping to visit, the birth of a new calf, what he had for supper. You might find journaling a rewarding way to tell your own story.
     You might like put your stories in poetry form. One of my ancestors wrote a collection of poems about his life in the early 1800’s. One tells how he traveled by river raft to a new home farther west. Another tells how his children were saved when their horse ran away with their buggy. Still others are memorials to lost loved ones.
       Audio or video recordings of us telling our stories can be an especially precious gift to our descendants. At a family reunion, one cousin showed a video-taped interview with his elderly mother. She talked about her family and about growing up on the North Dakota prairies. Aunt Mary is gone now, but she lives on in voice and pictures for the great-grands who never met her. Some years ago, I turned on the tape recorder while my father told about life during the Great Depression, then transcribed what he said. He too has gone home, but we can live those times through his stories.

        Today’s digital cameras make taking great photos easy and cheap. But if those photos just go into digital storage we run the risk of losing them if a computer crashes or something happens to our cloud storage. Printing the pictures and archiving them in albums is a good way to enjoy them now and ensure something to pass down to descendants. Just be sure to label with dates, places, and names of people. Otherwise they might someday end up in a box of orphan photos in an antique store.

        My husband has been working for the past few years to organize family photos that came to him in old scrapbooks and cardboard boxes. They go back several generations. Because he remembers many of the people he is including anecdotes with the pictures, many of them humorous. It’s an entertaining way to carry on the family story. The albums spark questions, reminiscing and conversation.

        Or you can write a traditional memoir, choosing to write about your life from beginning to the present or perhaps picking out certain important events to tell about. Part of the charm of personal history lies in the “voice” of the teller. Regional expressions and individual speaking or writing style give color to a story. The grammar and spelling doesn’t have to be perfect. If necessary, we can hire someone to edit and type what we write.

    There are many ways to share our stories. What’s important is to do it.

*Top photo: Actress Mary Pickford at a writing desk.

Blog Series, Part Two–Your Story Can Give Your Family Roots

Why Should You Tell Your Story?

        My grandparents died before I was old enough to ask questions about their lives, except for Grandma Schmidt, and I only saw her a few times. She and my grandpa immigrated from Germany as children, met and married in the U.S., and moved to a homestead in the hill-and-coulee country of North Dakota. I know she herded geese as a little girl in Germany. As an adult, she raised turkeys to help support her family on their marginal farm. She learned English well enough to write me letters in German script until she died when I was a teen.

         Did she miss her relatives in Germany? How did it feel to leave her first three babies in their graves when she moved from Minnesota to North Dakota? Did she feel bereft when my mother moved out west to Washington, depriving her of the chance to know the five grandchildren who were born here? I have tried to write the bare bones of her story for her descendants, but I don’t have the answers for questions like those. I wish I could have asked her.

        One of the greatest gifts you can leave future generations is the knowledge of who you are. They can learn from your hopes, dreams, and struggles as you pass on the lessons you’ve learned.

        Until you can put your stories on paper, look for opportunities to tell them to your family. Your life stories will become part of their story. And you’ll gift your loved ones with a sense of life’s ongoing.

        You’ll give your children and grandchildren a sense of their own places in history, helping them feel connected with those who’ve gone before, with those whose lives they touch now, and with those who will follow them. What a gift!


Grandma Johanna Schmidt with her turkeys at the edge of the coulee

Blog Series, Part One–Tell Your Story, because Your Life Matters

Why You Should Tell Your Story

    I just spent a couple of days with my younger sister, who lives some distance away. It was special to be reminded of happy times when we and our children were young. Later, life brought heartbreak and difficult days to both of us but now, we can laugh again. We’ve lived some stories that deserve to be told.

        My sister raised her family before going back to college and becoming a businesswoman. She lost two of her three adult children. Byron died in his early twenties in a plane crash, along with four other pilots on their way to fight wildfires in California. Cancer took Tami’s life. She left behind a husband and pre-teen daughter. Then my sister’s marriage imploded.
        In spite of multiple griefs and her own battle with cancer, she carried on with her artistic and expert gardening pursuits and is active in the community. Now she is rebuilding her life with a good and caring man. She has a lot to teach others about bravery in the face of heartache.
        Her stories matter. What she did, said, thought, and felt changed her own small corner of the world. Her life has meaning and consequences, and so does yours.

        Each of us makes a difference to someone, somewhere. By telling your own stories, you can continue to affect people’s lives long after you are gone. So, tell your story because your life matters.

    In the next few posts on Sun Breaks, I’ll offer more reasons why you should tell your stories. I’ll also include some “how-to’s.” Stay tuned.

Can you imagine a story behind this picture?