How to Craft Your Memoir
Be sure to include experiences and feelings that make your life story meaningful
When I overheard my father reminiscing with his old Army buddy about how desperate they felt as kids having to do menial tasks to earn money that would help their families — even plucking chickens — I realized I hadn’t heard much about his emotional life growing up.
In fact, other than the few stories he told about his two brothers, he didn’t talk about his childhood. Over the years, I managed to collect facts and figures— where his mother and father were born, important dates and some highlights of his life. But I knew little of his family's financial struggles during the Great Depression and almost nothing about his older brother's death.
Helping Dad Write His Memoir
But I got a chance to learn some of that singular information when we wrote his memoir together. Although my father's recollection of some events was sketchy, he was able to share feelings he'd had as a teenager and thrill his grandsons and me with tales of growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s. Our family still shares his memoir, even though Dad is no longer around.
Learning from that experience, I decided to be proactive and not wait for my children to quiz me.
I began the journey of reliving my life, putting words onto a blank screen, noting where I could my feelings, fears, joys and sorrows. Even if I don’t finish it, there will at least be my incomplete symphony from which my progeny will benefit.
(MORE: 4 Smart Ways to Leave a Legacy)
Excuses for Putting Off Memoirs
What stops people from starting to write their stories?
I asked Ruth Mills, an accomplished editor and ghostwriter of life stories. “People come up with all kinds of excuses for not writing their memoir,” Mills says. “But ultimately I think there are two reasons. The first is that they feel they have nothing to say. Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. The second reason is that they don’t know where to begin.”
Undoubtedly, writing a memoir can be an overwhelming task and that's a problem.
The solution, according to most writers who'e ever faced a deadline, is to just start typing. Don’t think about putting down your whole life. Start writing about one event. You don’t even have to start at the beginning. Your first draft of any story is your brain dump: getting it all out on paper or on screen. Later you’ll hone the words and reorganize them.
Similarly, don’t let the mechanics of writing get in your way. If you’re not comfortable working on a computer, try dictating into a recording device. You can always transcribe your words later or hire an inexpensive transcription service.
Not an Autobiography
A memoir is not your autobiography and doesn’t have to follow a chronological order. Instead, it tells how you felt about the various experiences you’ve had. You could choose to focus on just one pivotal experience.
For many, a good approach is to think about what was going on around you at age 14 or 15 years, since events from adolescence can have a lasting effect on your attitudes about life. This idea is backed by Morris Massey’s What You Are Now is What You Were When, his investigation into how people develop a values system.
The 7 Right Questions
Mills's company has done hundreds of life stories, and she has honed her questions to elicit answers for successful memoirs. Here are the seven questions she recommends asking either your parent or yourself:
1. What are you most proud of? (It might be your kids, your home, career, a particular skill or talent or an achievement.)
2. How would you want to be remembered?
3. Who or what influenced the direction of your life, and when?
4. What advice would you give others based on the successes you’ve had or the mistakes you’ve made?
5. Which were some of the best days of your life, and why?
6. If you could have done anything in your life, what would it have been?
7. Finally, there's what Mills calls the “It’s a Wonderful Life” question: What effect have your had on the world and what would have been different if you hadn’t been born?
The key to writing your memoir and making it interesting to readers is to pepper it with your feelings. No one else has had your experiences or reacted in the same way.
Make it yours and don’t worry about grammar, spelling or the quality of the writing. The only thing that’s important is that it be your own story. That’s what your kids want, and you’re the only one who can provide it.