What's Your Story?

Information, techniques and tips for writing your memoir.

Do you ever wish you could ask your grandparents what life was like back when they were kids?

Imagine what it would mean to your grandchildren and the generations that come after them to have your written account of the important events in your life.

What is a memoir anyway? Unlike an autobiography – a chronological account of a life from beginning to end – a memoir may encompass only one year, one life changing event, or one important relationship in your life. It can tell the story of your love of cooking.

A memoir may also be simply a written collection of all the stories you have told to your grandchildren about growing up.

Stephen King described his memoir as "only snapshots out of focus."

If the word "memoir" doesn't suit you, call it your life story. Or the memories of your childhood. The title is not important. What is important is that you write it down. 

San Ramon resident Patty Petersen, who taught memoir classes at the San Ramon Community Center at Central Park from 2007 through 2010 said, "Memoir is reflecting back on another time, and you have a different set of experiences in your mind when you're looking back on it."

A memoir does not have to be a long narrative. It can take many forms.

"I've seen comic book memoirs," Peterson said.  "Some are sort of cut and paste, as if they sprung up from a kid's notebook, a picture here, a little notation there."

One obstacle to getting started, she added, is that, "writing is not easy … it's like exercise. You have to get into it. You sort of have to force yourself to start."

Another barrier is dealing with your own negative voice criticizing the quality of your writing.

"You just have to keep telling yourself you're going to keep doing it," she said.

Another tip for starting the project is to make a list of topics you want to include in your memoir. "Select one topic from the list and write about it for 15 minutes," Peterson suggests.

In her book Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Natalie Goldberg offers prompts to get the memories flowing. They include, "Write about your mother's jewelry"; "(write about) how you were wild and green in the ways of the world"; and, "We all come from someplace. Where do you come from? How did you escape?"

What if your memory of the details is a little fuzzy? "It isn't necessary to remember [for example] what color your dress was," advises Peterson, "as long as the events are portrayed truthfully." 

Sensitive topics can be difficult to write. If a story important to you in your life may reveal a secret that could hurt another individual, Peterson suggests waiting until the other party has died before revealing that chapter. In some cases, you can change the name of a particular character, such as a teacher, if their identity is not essential to the story.

Don't forget to set the scene in your memoir by describing the setting and connecting it with the specific time period. This will make the story more interesting to the reader. Peterson suggests Googling the year about which you are writing. Incorporate current events, names of the songs and artists, TV shows and movies that were popular at the time. 

Another tip to make your story more readable is to include dialog. But who can remember exactly what was said 30, 40, 50 years ago? "As long as the dialog is true to the scene, and true to the person speaking it, it's acceptable in memoir," says Peterson.

Add photographs or original artwork to the narrative to bring your memoir to life. Browsing through old photo albums also might trigger other memories you'll want to add.

For more information on writing your memoir, Peterson recommends the following books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory, by Maureen Murdock; Living To Tell The Tale, by Jane Taylor McDonnell; and, Inventing The Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, by William Zinsser.

The following web sites also provide useful tips:




You also might want to check out the creative writing class that meets from 1 to 3 p.m. on the first and third Friday of every month at the Alcosta Senior and Community Center

If you have a flair for poetry, check out the class "Poetry and You" from 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Remember, a memoir doesn't have to be the greatest story ever written. It just has to be your story. And you can be sure that, no matter what form it takes, it will become a treasured keepsake for your children, your grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Now start writing!

penny warner February 22, 2011 at 01:36 AM
Very inspiring! Wish my parents and grandparents had written their memoirs! Then I'd know so much more about them.


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