Where to Start a Memoir

     If you are not sure where to start your story,  start with a list of events from your life. You can generate that list by writing down your earliest memory and go from there. Using the free writing technique, write  your list using only a few words for each idea and keep writing without stopping to re-read or critique what you have written. That will come later.  When you have exhausted all ideas resort to your photo albums for more idea.

     Now that you have a list the next step is to go through the list and mark those events which are turning points in your life. Circle them, underline them or put a check mark next to them, but mark them as significant. Then select only one of those events and draw a map of the location where the event took place.  Perhaps it was dinner at Grandma’s house. Your map might be of the inside of the house, including not only the furniture but the smaller details as well. You can’t draw the wall paper on your map but you can add a few descriptive words next to the wall.  Your map will then be filled with pictures and words.  You may have added the words, floral wall paper, daisy cushions,  rosebud china, maybe your grandmother was a gardener. You get the idea. The more you can add to your map the more memory is triggered which is the idea behind the exercise.

     Once your map is complete for that event then you are ready to write about it.  To make your written scene come alive  add details from your map and don’t forget to include the five senses. Add some emotion, make it vivid, make the reader feel that he is there.

     You can use these steps each time to write a scene as it enables you to tap into your memory. These steps can also be used to interview family members to get their story. I used the mapping technique with my father to learn about his childhood farm. Unfortunately I have never seen the farm since it no longer exists. The map helped him focus his memory to specifics which brought  forth many details. For instance, I asked him to tell me about the barn.  I soon learned that the question was too vague so I asked him to tell me what was the first thing I would see if I entered the barn. He proceeded to tell me that I would notice all of his father’s tools hanging neatly on their hooks. He then told me that my grandfather was known in the village to lend his tools to anyone who would return them to the correct spot. If they were not returned to the correct place, he would not lend to that person again.  Apparently he kept track of the lenders by writing their name next to the nail. I was facinated by this piece of information about the grandfather I never met.  This mapping technique can re-kindle memories which otherwise may be lost.

     Once you have written several of these scenes you can then decide which one might be the best place as a jumping off point for your story. If you can’t decide, you can always ask your writing group, or a trusted friend to help you.  Sometimes it helps to set the scene aside for a time, a week or longer and then look at it again with fresh eyes. You may be surprised at what you notice.

     The best advice  to any writer is to read lots of books in your genre and see how other authors deal with their subject.  Also helpful is reading up on the craft of writing.

Here is a list of book which I found helpful:

  • Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington
  • Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing a Memoir, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas
  • Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton
  • Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life, by Anne Lamott
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