Writing a memoir? 4 essential tips to get you started

Photo of empty coffee cup sitting on Roget's Thesaurus

Writing a memoir? Start by putting away the Thesaurus and style guide.

So, you want to write a memoir, a book about your life story. You’ve never written anything quite like this before. You have a head full of stories about your own life and your family history, and you want to get them on paper into a memoir for your children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, or just for your own satisfaction. That’s the scenario here. (If you’re an experienced author we would have a different conversation.)

When you’re young, life can seem a marmalade of muddles (to misquote Brazilian singer Lobão speaking of Bolsonaro’s first six months in power). It’s only as we get older that we have any chance of perceiving a pattern and perhaps a purpose in our lives. Those are wonderful, rare, exciting moments, those Aha! moments, and it’s often when you’re writing about your own life that they happen.

I know many people hope and trust that in retirement they will write that promised memoir, even though they have never done any sustained personal writing in their lives. If your working life has seen you writing in a formal or academic style, switching to your personal story can be excruciatingly difficult. That’s not your fault! However, that’s a good reason to start scribbling now. One day that critic, that professor, that CEO will get off your shoulder and leave you alone to write this memoir your way. But you need to practise, that’s the thing.

A few tips to get you started on your memoir

Maybe you have already assembled notes and ideas and photos for this project. That’s great, it’s not wasted, and your research is already in your brain. But now you are going to write. That’s a different process!

  1. Approach the writing in a spirit of delight. Amazing discoveries lie ahead! This is your adventure. Don’t let anybody spoil it. Don’t let anybody boss you around.
  2. Write small bits, little stories. Don’t try to see the big picture and sum up your whole life yet: that comes later. It’s writing little stories that sparks your memory and later, your critical judgement.
  3. Start with whatever story pops into your head first. Any attempt to narrate events in perfect chronological order is counter-productive. One story reminds you of another and away you go. (You can shuffle the pieces later, much later. Meantime, enjoy the ride.)
  4. How about style? For now, do one thing only. Imagine you are talking to a particular person who will read the book later on. Best would be a young relative. Think of the questions that particular person would ask. The mundane details they would not know. Tell the story in your own voice, the way you would tell it to your young relative. (Don’t worry about correctness: you can  fix things later. You’re not writing a composition, it’s a chat with your audience. Put away that Thesaurus and style guide. For now, they are not your friends.

I’ll give you more tips in future posts.


4 thoughts on “Writing a memoir? 4 essential tips to get you started

  1. Elizabeth says:

    After imagining writing a memoir, I realized that most of what I had to say I had written in my blog. I found a French publishing house and have had(so far) three books printed(at great expense but so what)of the posts. They will be left for my grandkids to learn about me.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Brilliant! And the modular approach extends even to the books, in your case. My own blog posts don’t work on paper but others make the transition work.

  2. Claudette says:

    These are great tips and I agree that the possible intention of writing in chronological order is going to end up counter-productive. I know! Because it happened to me. This is the beauty of all the apps that exist today where you can do your writing in no particular order and then the program or app you’re using will help you sort it out later. 🙂

    Also writing is an acquired skill. Start now and capture things even if it’s little every day memories. It will help fuel the fire later, when you have more to say.

    Great post!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Claudette! Oh yes, I have seen others sink in a sea of dates. As you say, technology helps. And when a collection gets big, nothing beats printing the stories and shuffling them around.