Tips for Memoirists


Writing Your Own Memoir
Why Should You Tell Your Story?

The first lesson most writers learn is that we all have at least one story to write. Most of us have a lifetime of stories to draw from. But we can come up with all kinds of excuses for not putting them on paper.

Excuse #1: I’m not important enough. But our stories do matter. What we do, say, think, and feel changes the course of history in our own small corner of the world. Our lives have meaning and consequences. Each of us makes a difference to someone, somewhere. We can continue to affect people’s lives through the telling of our stories.

Excuse #2: Who’d be interested? Our descendants will be. One of the greatest gifts we can leave future generations is the knowledge of who we are. They can learn from our hopes, our dreams, our fears, and our griefs as we pass on the lessons we’ve learned. We can give others a sense of their own places in history. We can help our descendants and others who read our stories feel connected with those who’ve gone before, with those whose lives they touch now, and with those who follow them.

Excuse #3: I’m not a professional writer. You don’t have to be. Part of the charm of personal histories lies in the “voice” of the teller. If we worry about grammatical mistakes, misspelled words, etc., there are classes to help with the mechanics of writing. We can hire someone to type and edit what we write. Audio or video recordings of us telling our stories can be an especially precious gift to our descendants. Some people make photo scrapbooks that include descriptions and stories.

Excuse #4: I’m too busy. But don’t we always find time for what is truly important to us? What can be more important than leaving legacies for those we love? Some people set aside small but regular blocks of time to work on their stories. Some keep continuing notebooks where they write notes and stories for later revision. Others jot memories down on scraps of paper and drop them into a folder. The methods are as individual as the people who use them. Don’t wait any longer. Find a way that fits into your schedule and start.

How to Get Started

Time: Decide how much time will you can devote to your project: an hour a day? one afternoon a week? every Saturday?

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 to see how those authors dealt with their stories. Talk to friends and acquaintances who have written about their lives.

Purpose: Does your story have wide-enough interest for commercial publication? Or, you might wish to 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 just for your immediate family? Perhaps you will make a PDF you can e-mail 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 reader, and yourself as well.

Develop your characters, showing their personalities, appearances, and mannerisms. Add specific details to set the scenes. Use dialogue and sensory details of sight, sounds, smells, tastes, touch. If you let readers know how you felt when you were left out of a game, or when you received 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 through photos and family documents. Check out time-lines on the Internet or old newspaper files at the library to review what was happening in the time period you’re writing about. Prepare to 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. Your life holds the makings of a great story. All you have to do is tell it.

© Joan Rawlins Husby 2008

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