Writing Your Memoir

by Jack E Nelson


"Every man has within him the entire human condition" (Michel de Montaigne).

We used to think of memoirs as being written mostly by well-known people whose lives were thought to be exemplary models that could inspire others, or by people who had accomplished much and were seeking to enshrine for themselves a place in the historical record. No doubt these motives for wanting to record the story of one's life will persist. But with memoir and autobiographical writing becoming increasingly popular over the past decade, the nature of the genre has become more diverse.

Discerning readers find themselves more attracted to the interior story of people's growth and transformation through life in conjunction with the adversities they encountered along the way. How people faced the difficulties life threw at them, how they struggled to overcome during times of crises, why they made the choices they made and how they were changed in the process is the story we clamor to know more about, no matter who is writing the memoir.

We could all tell such a story about our own lives. And yet, for each of us the story would be unique. For people thinking about writing their own memoirs and finding it hard to get started, Tristine Rainer in her excellent book Your Life as Story offers some suggestions on an approach that can be taken. Imagine yourself being queried by an inquisitive grandchild or some close friend who is serious about wanting to learn from your experience. You are asked: What are the most important lessons you have learned during the course of your life, and why do you consider these lessons to be significant? The common thread running through the answers you come up with can serve as a useful theme for your memoir, giving a coherence to the story of your life. The nature of the questioning also raises the subject matter to a more serious level. These are universal concerns that are being addressed and the manner in which you respond touches the core of human experience.

The truth is you could tell different stories of your life, depending on the theme you choose to emphasize. But it is important to limit yourself to one overall focus and use materials from your life experience that contribute to the development of one particular theme. Otherwise, it is too easy to wander tangentially into discussions of your life that may be of interest to a few immediate family members but which most readers will find tedious if not downright boring. Keep your audience in mind. Readers need to be able to follow the progression of a story line.

The idea is to think of your memoir as more than a chronological listing of happenings in your life. Adding a story line based on a theme of common interest will enhance your rendering of your life, capturing and holding the reader's attention. Your memoir becomes more than just a written record; it should be a work of art, a drama, with you as the protagonist of the story.

Now, how do you go about developing your chosen theme? Ask yourself, what did you have to go through in wringing out of your life's experience the hard-won answers to those questions? This will be the bulk of your story. Early on you will want to inform the reader how this prominent element in your life first entered your experience, first became a dream, a challenge, or a fear - whatever the case may be - for you. When did the issues at stake first come to your awareness? Then, what twists and turns in life developed your insight into the importance of what was at stake? The big lessons in life often take us years to learn, and sometimes we have to learn the hard way or we forget what we've learned and have to repeatedly re-learn. What other paths did you take in trying to come up with satisfactory resolutions to your problems? Was there a crisis point that led you to a new understanding? How has your life been enriched by coming to terms with these issues? Therein you can find an outline to your life story.

Along the way, there will be ample opportunity to offer details on your life. You will want to develop scenes of places you lived and worked, and character sketches of the people who contributed to your life story, as well as to describe crucial events and explore your emotional responses to those events.

Memoir writing can be taxing work requiring not just the exercise of one's memory but also deep reflection. The task, however, should be viewed as an affirming, self-validating experience, a chance to make sense of one's own life, to tie up loose ends, and to view one's life as having significance. For those wanting help during this process, memoir writing groups can be a most helpful way to get feedback and encouragement along the way. There are also professionals who specialize in helping people compose their memoirs. As a personal historian, I can help you put together a quality story of your life and facilitate getting it printed and bound.


Jack E. Nelson, from Charlotte, N.C., devotes his time to helping people write engaging books, mostly personal memoirs and autobiographies. Telephone him at 704-243-4447.


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