Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. See her full bio under Writing and Editing Services.
Your life story is unique. There is no one else on this planet with the same memories. That makes you a fascinating person, so start with the knowledge that your life is worth writing about. It doesn’t matter whether you know you are fascinating, you think you’ve had the dullest life imaginable or you see yourself as a ne’er do well. You have a story that will captivate readers and can teach them a thing or two.
After thirty years working as a writer and editor and coauthoring a number of books for pre-teen and teenage girls I started a memoir writing business. I work with people who want to tell their unique stories to produce the best memoirs possible. The process described in this and subsequent blogs is the one that I used in writing the first draft of my own memoir. It was an intensely satisfying experience.
In order to write fast, you have to have an understanding of what you want to achieve, so take a little time to prepare for the writing ahead.
If you believe, as I do, that one of the primary reasons we are given this life is to learn and that you have indeed learned, then you have something valuable to share. One reason the memoir genre has become so popular is that it gives us a glimpse into the minds of those who are both similar to and different from us. We like relating to others through their stories. It takes us out of our own narrow perspective and yet we find things to identify with in the stories of others, things that teach us lessons as well as satisfying our curiosity about how others live
It is worth spending a little time thinking about this as you prepare to write. What do you see in your life that is unique, and what do you see that is common to others? For example, if you grew up with an exotic learning disability that made your life more challenging, that would be something that is, if not unique, at least different from the majority of people who will read your story. But if you found a way to learn and took joy in it, that characteristic is one you share with others and one that readers will easily relate to.
Just as each life is unique, so too is each person’s reason for writing. But we can attempt categorize memoir writers’ motivations. You might write as a form of therapy, hoping to find in the act of recording your life that you will better understand the things that have happened to you and find some peace. You might be someone who has to work through pain and or guilt. You might write as a form of self-validation, seeing your life more wholly and finding meaning in remembering. You might write to discover how you feel about certain themes or experiences, using the writing opportunity to gain more self-knowledge. You are the person who knows the most about your life, the primary expert, but by putting your recollections on paper you might discover aspects of your life you hadn’t considered before. Listen to these authors on memoir:
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.
“Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.” Thomas M. Cirignano, The Constant Outsider.
You might write to revisit certain times and understand why you made the choices you did. Maybe you write to answer big questions, like “Why am I alive and what is my purpose?” Many people write to leave a legacy, either for their families or for a wider audience. Others write because they want attention or fame, others to earn money.
What are your reasons for writing? Take some time now to understand your motivations and you will be guided in how you organize your material and the subject matter and word choices you make. Here are some questions to consider:
Who am I writing for?
What is my primary motivation?
What are my secondary motivations?
What do I hope to discover in the writing process?
Am I trying to justify my actions to someone?
What is my relationship to my past?
Most of us cannot fully articulate how we feel about the past. However, by trying to put our feelings into words, we open doors into our writing. If you believed only that “the past is dead, time to forget it,” you would not be reading this. You have an interest in your past. Do you look on it nostalgically, regretfully, angrily or philosophically? There is no right answer and no single answer, but articulating how you feel will help you to see and understand your motivations for writing.