Writing a memoir
It’s easier than
By Eva Shaw
YOU SAID YOU’D do it. You promised,
“This is the year.” When will you write your
life story? Or help family members write the
stories in their life? Or turn your life story into
a novel? Here’s how.
Discover your focus. As you begin, read
other memoirs to see what formats you like
and decide if you want to add photos or
perhaps a DVD to accompany your life story.
You can write your full life story or focus on
amazing periods or events. Check out “
year-in-the-life” books such as Kathleen Flinn’s The
Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry (Viking,
2007) or The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs (Simon
& Schuster, 2005).
Write a page a day. If you write a page of
your life story each day, in a year you’ll have a
book. Don’t and you won’t. Make an appointment with yourself, negotiate time with the
family to write or ask someone to make you
accountable to a writing schedule.
Start small. Write about your life in manageable increments, much like essays, and on
topics, at least at the beginning, that are fun
to remember. This will make the process easier. Make it a goal to write about each experience to its fullest.
Look at life’s journey. The best life stories
begin with a bang, typically a life-changing
event. I call this the fork in the road, and it’s a
good place to start. What choices did you
make to be who you are? Even negatives set us
on unplanned paths, and if we had taken
another direction we’d be in another place
today. Where was your fork?
Bubble it. In the middle of a large piece
of paper, draw a big circle (or bubble), and
inside that circle write “MY LIFE.” Draw 10
lines radiating out from the circle, like a child’s
drawing of the sun, and at the end of each line
draw a circle. Fill in each circle (or sub-bubble) with experiences you want to write about.
These bubbles might be your chapters. Repeat
the process with each sub-bubble in the middle of a sheet of paper, create an outline from
your bubbles and your life story will be ready
to write in an organized format.
Write the details. Listen to music, eat
childhood foods, revisit places where you lived,
reread letters and quiz family members. Old
family photos are gold mines; look at the backgrounds, clothing and faces of the people.
Everyday essentials. Write about typical
days from your past, the people who influenced you and especially everyday experiences. Write about life lessons, jobs, teachers,
family, friendships and fears. Ask yourself
questions and write out your answers.
Tell your truth. When three people see
the same event, they’ll relate three versions. In
your life story, you must tell your truth. Don’t
fret about what might offend someone until
you’ve finished all of your life story, and then
make changes if necessary.
Let people talk. Dialogue will bring your
story to life. I could write about how pleased
Dad was to move to New Mexico. But see
what happens when Dad speaks: “We’re moving to Albuquerque,” Dad said, rubbing his
hands together. “Oh, the smell of roasting chiles
and sagebrush. Oh, the salsa and sunsets. Did
I mention food?” Simply note in the beginning
of your book that you’ve written dialogue as
you remember it.
Leave it in? Take it out? Will straight-laced Aunt May fuss or laugh if you reveal she
was once a trapeze performer? Seriously, all
families have secrets. We all have secrets we’d
prefer not to share. It’s OK to leave things out.
Editing is like furniture polish. When
your book is done, put it aside. Then, a week
or month later, read it out loud. What needs
to be changed, added or covered in more
detail? Expect to polish your writing enough
times to make it shine.
Are you done yet? Plan for a natural ending, such as completing a season in life or
accomplishing a goal. Perhaps a final chapter
might include your philosophies, hopes
Just write. Don’t worry about format.
Write from your heart. This is your story, and
you are the only one who can write it. C
www.evashaw.com, is a ghost-writer specializing in memoirs. She teaches
memoir writing online at colleges worldwide
and lives in Carlsbad, California.
WITH A BIT of thought you can create
family heirlooms that will be treasured forever. Letters to grandchildren, written
monthly, during their first year will be
priceless. A family cookbook will bring joy
to everyone. Scrapbooks will be adored.
You can use fill-in-the-blanks memoir
workbooks that are like a much more personal job application. Or write out a legacy
letter, in which you explain what you
believe in and what you’d like to be
Just for fun, ask kids to draw pictures
of themselves while you write their life
stories. Little ones love this, and grandparents gobble it up. And what of those
Christmas letters you’ve had forever?
Scan, print and bind them for everlasting
You can do it. You can create heirlooms
that will forever be appreciated.—ES