How to Start Your Memoir

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You have a story to share, but you’re not sure how to start. Follow these suggestions to boost your motivation and let your words flow freely.

The thought of writing about yourself can be intimidating. It might be hard to imagine writing 200 pages or more about your life.

Remember, your memoir is not about you. Take the focus off of you and focus on a lesson you’ve learned or a truth you’ve realized. Explore ways that you can translate that lesson or truth in a way that will show others what you’ve gained from it all.

It may also feel daunting to attempt to illustrate your entire life story. Begin by making a short list of impactful events from your life.

Which one feels like it could be a captivating story? Sometimes, the answer does not reveal itself until you start writing, so start by writing a few paragraphs for each event on your list. Then, focus on the one that feels the most exciting to you. 

Know Your Genre

Memoir is a collection of your personal knowledge or a story from a section of your life. It’s not an autobiography spanning your entire life and it’s not a biography, which is a story about your life written by someone else.

A memoir takes a look at a particular time, place, person, or topic that has influenced your life. It's written in your voice and from your point of view.

Some famous memoirs include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, where she writes about her life after the death of her husband; Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle, which tells the story of her journey of self-discovery after the implosion of her marriage; and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, about her life as a young woman dealing with racism.

Before you start writing, take the time to savor a few great memoirs and notice what you like most about them. Let other writers’ stories inspire you.

Notice that these published works rarely start at the beginning and follow a chronological order; they tend to take the best stories and weave them together to take the reader on a journey.

Writers call this technique "developing your hook." You want to immediately grab your readers’ attention by making a promise, asking a question, or revealing a truth. Find a way to say something that will get the reader curious.

One way you can start to find your hook is by answering the basic questions of storytelling. Write down the answers to these questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Start a Writing Practice

Once you’ve explored your topic and idea, it’s time to start writing. Try to find a rhythm or routine for your writing. Maybe you get up and write first thing in the morning for 30 minutes each day. Maybe you sneak writing time in during your lunch break or late at night.

Different writers have different methods for their writing practice. Some write every day while others develop a routine with writing days and writing days off.

Brené Brown, known for her groundbreaking research on vulnerability, shame, courage, and authenticity, says that our happiness depends on our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable. By this definition, memoir writers must be very happy people.

Of course, getting vulnerable on the page can be a scary endeavor for most people and getting started is perhaps the scariest part of all, even for successful writers like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

“When it comes to getting to work, my trick is to conjure my inner-nun-with-a-ruler-in-hand and simply force myself to begin,” Cheryl said in an interview. “Beginning is about three-quarters of the battle for me. Once I’m into the work, it’s so much more interesting than anything happening on Facebook.”

As you give yourself time and space to write, you will learn more about your topic, the things you want to say, and what routine works best for you.

“When I sit down to write—not an easy place to get to—I feel all my energies and abilities come into one focus, one laser point—I feel like a bird, pausing in midair, then plummeting down into the waves, intent on that one fish that will save it,” writes Marta Szabo, codirector of Authentic Writing and longtime Omega teacher, on her blog. “I write, then come up for air, then look at what I have unearthed.”

If you find yourself sitting down to write with nothing to say, start with a prompt. Pretend you are writing in your journal and start with a question or an idea, such as, “My mother or father used to always say,” or, “What's the most important moment of my life?”

While you are in the writing phase, allow your thoughts and ideas to flow freely. You can always edit later.

Evolving Your Book

As you are writing, work on painting vivid pictures for your readers. You can develop this writing muscle by using your senses. 

Practice the art of noticing what is around you right now. What sounds do you hear? What color is the mug of coffee you are drinking? How does the room smell? These details will help you re-create memorable moments on the page. 

American writer Kurt Vonnegut described the process of writing as learning to “be a good date for the reader,” but you can also call this developing a relationship with your audience.

Memoir writing is a very personal kind of endeavor, so give yourself some time to figure out what part of your story you’d like to share and what makes it most interesting to you. Then, think about how you would tell that story to your best friend.

Remember to be gentle with yourself throughout the process. The best way to improve your writing is through practice. 

Want more tips on writing memoir? Watch this video on books that can help you get started from Omega teacher Kelly Notaras, founder of kn literary arts.