Whether you realize it or not, your life is a story, and it’s a story you should share, at least with those closest to you. If you decide to write a memoir, chances are it won’t be a best seller. You may or may not even choose to publish it. But I urge you to write it.
If you’ve never written before, you will be amazed at what an almost mystical experience it can be for you. If you have dabbled in writing, but kept your precious thoughts and words buried in a drawer or hidden on your hard drive, this is the best way I know to write, first, for yourself and, second, for your most appreciate audience, your family.
Merriam Webster defines a memoir as “a narrative composed from personal experience” or “an autobiography.”
Ten ways to structure a memoir
1. A theme or a thread
4. Function: how things work
5. Journey: circular changes, from beginning to end
6. Mosaic: pieces of a puzzle or little vignettes
7. Organic: from physical qualities or layout
8. Origins: how things came to be or are made
9. People or characters
10. The seasons
Ten ways to begin
You do not necessarily have to start at the beginning. Consider starting with:
1. an important moment that reveals character — yours or someone else’s
2. a memory or flashback
3. a photograph or memento
4. beginnings, endings, first times, last times
5. a significant event — illness, birth, death, funeral, wedding, divorce
6. sensory memories — sights, sounds, smells
7. secrets, epiphanies, encounters, accusations
8. successes or failures
9. worst and best moments
10. mentors, heroes, villains
What to do
Use impressionistic description through metaphorical language: metaphor – direct comparison; simile – metaphor, using like or as or as though. Paint a picture with details, active, descriptive verbs. Orient yourself with the landscape. The external landscape reflects the inner landscape of your life (turbulent, stormy).
Personalize your writing, using “I” words and a subjective approach to subject matter. Use present tense; it gives energy to the writing. Use dialogue; direct conversation is powerful.
Break your memoir into moments or scenes; include conversation. Capture interesting conversation that reveals something about the character; leave out what’s not important. Boil events down to the basics. What is important to convey? What about you is different because of this incident or time in your life?
Make your story complex, unpredictable, powerful. Loop together a series of scenes like moments of conflict; conflict makes writing interesting. Do your best to tell the truth, as you know it; but even when you’re writing about the truth, it’s OK to combine several people into a composite character.
What not to do
Don’t just write down facts; create images for the reader. Don’t tell; show. Show with visual description, metaphoric language, dialogue (either conversation you remember verbatim or close to what could have been said based on the situation). Don’t use clichés and expected language; use powerful verbs. Don’t weaken your writing with adverbs; get rid of all “ly” words. Don’t ramble; compress language.
Why it’s personal
A memoir is about you. It is creative nonfiction. The greatest strength about creative nonfiction is that you stick to the essence of the truth, but you can exercise some creative license by including factual information and physical details to make a scene come to life. Creative nonfiction teaches something, even if the lesson is subtle.
A memoir challenges you to do more than recall and record facts about you life. It asks you to engage in courageous writing — to reveal yourself, your humanity, and the range of human experience, both joy and pain.
There is something in your story that every reader can relate to even if you don’t know what that will be. So, even though it is your story, as you write it, seek universal themes so that it relates not just to you but also to humanity in general. Above all, remember that your life is a story. Write it!