Writing a Memoir

(This article is a response to a question submitted to my Maui Weekly Column, Consider this . . . .)

“Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”    David Ben-Gurion

Q. I read your article a while back on writing a book. Since then, I’ve gone through my journals to see if they contained enough substance to write a memoir. A lot of it feels very personal. When is material too personal and when is it fit to be published? And, how much do you have to write for it to truly be a memoir? J.O.

A. Years ago, a writing teacher of mine gave me a distinction between journal writing and writing a memoir that I have passed on to many clients. When writing in a journal, most people write for themselves praying no one else will lay their eyes on a single word. When writing a memoir, though you are still writing about your experiences, you do so with your reader in mind.

I won’t mention names, but a memoir written by a famous Hollywood personality was published a few years back. I love reading memoirs and purchased it. After reading the first couple of chapters, I returned the book. More than ever, I understood what my writing teacher was referring to. I was sure that if this person had been anyone other than who she was, the book would never have been picked up by a publisher nor made it to the shelves of major booksellers.  I  was embarrassed for her. True, books enjoyed by some are often rejected by another, but this one was a doozy.

When writing a memoir, you wind up deleting a lot of the details from your journal that would be considered filler. Instead, you start detailing the major experiences-the feelings and events that make your life unique and would be interesting to read about. If you’re writing it for yourself or for your children and grandchildren, you might still want to edit quite a bit but you have much more leeway. My suggestion would be to read a few memoirs. See how they are written. Discover what grabs you and what puts you to sleep. It’s easy to check out a few from the library. You don’t have to read the whole book. Browse the table of contents and read bits and pieces from a few of the chapters.

Preparing to write a memoir can seem daunting. There are many ways to start. William Zinsser, author of How to Write a Memoir, suggests that you go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long — three pages, five pages — but it should have a beginning and an end. Do the same thing Tuesday morning. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past. Do this for as long as it takes to collect the particular parts of your life you’d like to write about.

If you are planning to write about your life from your birth to present time, Author Cathy Fulton suggests creating lists. Here are a few of her ideas.
1. Keep an ongoing list of the crucial events that took place in each era of your life.
(Births, deaths, marriages, adventures, milestones, etc.)
2. List the friends and enemies you had during each era. Note the special relationships that influenced you.
3. List all the jobs you held.
4. List your educational experiences from each era. (Life experiences count as education)
5. List the historical events and trends that shaped each era and the impact those events had on you.
6. Include all the geographical areas where you lived.
7. Your goals, aspirations, and dreams in each era.
8. The painful things that happened. Broken relationships, hopes dashed, abuse, fears.
9. List your accomplishments. Writing about how you achieved each one is a story.

I tell clients and students to do the same, listing the crucial events within the period of time you want to write about. Then start writing about one of those events that you feel most drawn by. When you’ve finished one, start another. When the time comes to fill in the transitions to bring the events/chapters together, you’ll know.

Let the above list be a stimulus for creating one of your own. If you have a hard time remembering events, take a walk down memory lane with your photo albums. Those old photos will surely be a substantive catalyst. Call on family members and friend’s. They can give you details you’ve forgotten. And, you can always give yourself creative license where memory fails.

How many pages constitutes a memoir? That is hard to judge. Again, you want to determine if it’s for your family or the public eye. The majority of published books are between 250 and 350 pages. Consider what you want to include, who it’s for, and then start to write. If you have more than you need for your first book, then you’ll be ahead of the game for your second volume.


Published by the Maui Weekly Newspaper