Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden o...

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success (Photo credit:

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. Suggestions for how to approach the first draft of a memoir are offered here and in related articles on the site.

Day Two: Exploring Possible Themes

In order to complete the first draft of your manuscript in thirty days, you need to know your theme before you start writing. Themes in memoir are broad subject areas that certain aspects of your life embody. Some examples of memoir themes are:

The artist within

Living with Papa

A garden for each season

Growing up in small-town America

The writing life

Travels in Japan

List the things you are grateful for in your life. Take a broad approach so that you don’t end up focusing only on the present. What forces made you the person you are today? Can you see the value in even the darkest parts of your life now? This exercise can be quite powerful. It will help to clear your mind of negativity and fear and get you ready to begin outlining.

To find a theme that will help you focus your writing, try this process. Take a blank sheet of paper and write the words “me” in a circle in the middle. Without thinking about it too hard, draw a line radiating from the circle and write something about your life. Then draw another line radiating from the circle and do the same thing. Draw a third and fourth line with things about your life on each of them. Which line is the one that you can make “branches” off of most easily? That is, which one do you have most to say about? Draw branches off that line and write something on them.

The branching technique is a quick way to “mind map” and discover the area of your life that holds the most interest and energy for you as a writer. The topic with the most branches may reveal a theme, or at least hint at one.

After you’ve had a chance to do the branching exercise, rest for the day and let the ideas that have surfaced find their way through your subconscious. On the third day, you will work with some of those ideas.

Day Three: Refining Your Theme

By now you should have an idea of whether you are writing for family and close friends or for a wider audience. You also should be aware of some of your fears about the writing process and have some idea of the theme of your memoir.

When I tried the branching technique I ended up making a lot of lists. One was of people I had known intimately, one was of groups I had joined, one was of jobs I had held, and one was of men I had known. It became evident to me that what I needed to do was to find a device that would let me incorporate all my lists into a single memoir. That led me to some introspection about how I had defined myself as a woman, especially during my twenties and thirties. I realized that social norms — or fighting against them — had pushed me in certain directions.

By working with your branching from the previous day, you will find that certain themes emerge in your life’s trajectory. Consider these questions as your review your branching work:

1. What things about your past would you change if you could? If you find that your life experiences made you the person you are today, you won’t want to give up much. This is what happened to me; I realized that I am quite satisfied with who I am and have few regrets about the life that I have lived. What a wonderful revelation that was! I have almost always been a person who focused more on the future than on the past, but knowing that my past serves to make me who I am and that I like myself makes me happy.

If you find that there are a lot of things you would change about your past if you could, look for themes there. For example, if you had a bad marriage and wished you hadn’t married the person you did, what led you to that choice? How did your choice fit into the other patterns you exhibited in your life? Why did you stay in a bad marriage? Is there something that would serve as a theme for your memoir?

2. What was your subconscious telling you when you did your branching exercise? By thinking now about the things you left out or didn’t write down, you should have some clue about what has been most important. What do those first branching lines have in common? Is there a germ of a theme there?

3. Imagine that you are a little girl or boy and have the power to see into the future. When you were six years old, what about the life you lived would have been the most surprising? What would have been the most expected? By answering these two questions, does the beginning of a theme emerge?

4. I once heard a new age guru say that everyone has one or two questions they are trying to answer with their lives. Does your branching work suggest what those questions are? Does that help you define a theme for your memoir?

If you still don’t have a good idea for a theme, don’t worry. Work with a possible theme and it will become clearer as you progress. Take what you think might be your theme and do another branching exercise using that theme inside the circle in the middle of the page. Don’t think about it too hard; just write things on the lines radiating from that circle. This will be the skeleton for your memoir. But don’t worry. You don’t have to get it right; just let both sides of your brain work together to create branches for your newly discovered theme. Remember, you are looking for one branch that calls to you and that you can branch off of easily.

Your new branches should bring you closer to the subject material for your memoir. If you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, try this exercise several times. Eventually the patterns will emerge. When you think you have a clear idea of what you will write about, rest for the day.

Related articles

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Two

Linda Thornbug runs the Memories Into Story website. See her bio under Writing and Editing Services.

"Writing on the wood is prohibited."...

“Writing on the wood is prohibited.” DSC07600 (Photo credit: Nicolas Karim)

If you have discovered that your primary motivation in writing your memoir is to right a wrong, you need to dig deeper. Writing about the past may change it in your mind, but it won’t change circumstances and it generally won’t help you to gain revenge. There is nothing wrong with writing as a form of therapy, but the writing ought to be directed toward expressing and learning from your experiences, not toward feeling vindicated by exposing the actions of others. If that is your primary motivation, you are, quite frankly, stuck, and you need to find a way to get unstuck. The need to right a wrong is a victim mentality that will result in a poorer memoir.

Have you known people who keep making the same mistakes in life again and again? Who see the world through a lens so colored with their own sense of victimization that no matter what happens in their life they see it as bad news? They actually attract misfortune by the way they think. If you are one of these people, it’s unlikely you can break this cycle by yourself, because it is so powerfully reinforcing. Writing can help, but only if you approach it with the attitude that you will gather new insights about yourself as you write, and learn from the experience of writing, as well as from the experiences your life has presented to you. The lessons are there for you; think of them as rich material for your memoir, accept responsibility for your life and use your life experiences to create a memoir of hope.

I used the plan described in these blogs to write the first draft of my own memoir, A Different Drum, in exactly a month. I hope it will serve you equally well. If you follow the plan you will complete a manuscript in a month and be ready for the revision process. Revisions are the most important part of any writing project and they take time. But by having a completed manuscript, you will find you have the interest and energy to revise.

Happy writing!

Day One: Finding Out What You’re Afraid Of

Your first assignment is to confront your writing fears. Anything that is frightening can be made manageable by articulating and understanding it. And you do have fears about writing — because everyone does. So let’s review some common fears of memoir writers and figure out how to conquer them, or at least to tame them.

Fear number one: My life is too ordinary to be interesting.

You are unique and that makes you interesting. But if you believe your life is ordinary, dig deeper. List your accomplishments. You will be amazed by everything you have accomplished and you probably only remember a fraction of it.

This doesn’t have to be a complete or exhaustive list. Its purpose is to remind you of what you think are your greatest accomplishments. But notice something that happens in the process. The trajectory of your life begins to emerge, and that will bring you closer to discovering a theme for your memoir. In my life, writing has been important. So has accomplishment.

If you are having trouble with this exercise, ask yourself the following questions:

What am I most proud of?

What are the obstacles I had to overcome to achieve these things?

If you are fortunate enough to have so many accomplishments that you couldn’t possibly list them all, summarize the most important. You may want to use this list later to help you discover a memoir theme.

Fear number two: I’m not a good enough writer.

You are the expert on your story, which gives you an enormous advantage over others who might want to write it. To gain confidence in your writing ability, some short exercises may be in order. Here are some ways to boost your confidence:

·Write a letter to the editor on a topic you are passionate about. Edit it carefully. Send it and see if the paper will publish it.

·Write a story about something that happened in your life. Read it to your children, grandchildren or a friend. What kind of questions does your audience have?

·Write one paragraph describing a scene of your choice. Write it over and over until you are completely satisfied. Then read it to someone to see how that person reacts.

The truth is no one is a good enough writer. Writing is an activity that requires revision after revision. The secret to being a good writer is writing – and then revising. As a professor I had in graduate school said, there is nothing magical about the process. You may start with certain strengths, as I did, but you will quickly find that your weaknesses outweigh your strengths, no matter who you are. I think one of the reasons I love the activity of writing is that it is continually challenging. You can get better, but only if you continue to write.

Fear number three: It will be painful to review certain aspects of my life.

Writing is a solitary activity. Generally there is no one there but you and the computer or that blank piece of paper. You are in control of the process. If you are afraid of facing pain, do it a little at a time. Take one aspect of your life that you know you are comfortable dealing with and write a paragraph about it. Then write another paragraph that goes a little further into the painful area. For example, someone who suffered the death of a husband or wife might write a paragraph remembering a special holiday during the marriage and then write about what it was like to face that holiday alone. You will discover that when you are able to write about the painful periods, it feels good to get your memories and feelings down on paper. Writing about pain is therapeutic. In the process of writing, you find a release that would not have been possible otherwise. Try this exercise a few times and you will no longer have trouble writing about the painful periods of your life.

Fear number four: I don’t have anything original to say.

This is a variation of the fear “My life is too ordinary.” Worrying about not being original when you are writing about your own life is silly. Your experiences are unique; therefore telling about them will produce a unique manuscript. Your fear may be based in the fear of going deeply enough into your life experiences to find the interesting parts.

Fear number five: It will take too long and be too much work.

One of the reasons I wrote this blog is to show you that you don’t have to spend years writing a memoir. This fear is a sort of cost/benefit analysis statement that actually gives you a false estimate of the cost and benefit. By putting in a little bit of time, I promise you that you will reap a satisfying harvest. You may find that the habit of writing serves you well for the rest of your life.

Fear number six: The genre is already crowded. What if everyone wrote memoirs? The world would be flooded with bad literature.

If you are afraid of adding bad material to an overcrowded genre, you want to stand out. You want your memoir to be better than average and you want to develop a wide reading public. It’s good to know this at the beginning. You will have to work harder and do more revisions than those who are writing only for family and friends. The genre has been called overcrowded by some critics, but publishers have seen an appetite for memoirs. This presents an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Fear number seven: I’m afraid people will see how imperfect I am.

Aren’t we all? If perfection is your goal, you’re probably living on the wrong planet. Think of the people you know. Are those you consider the most perfect also the most interesting? I doubt it. Our defects and blemishes make us human and they are what people are interested in. Or, I should say, they are interested in seeing how we overcome or surmount our imperfections. So in some sense, the less perfect you have been, the better your story can be, if you can show us how you dealt positively with  your imperfections.

Fear number eight: I’m afraid I’ll hurt people.

This is the most legitimate fear out of all those listed. One of the most difficult things about writing a memoir is telling an honest story without doing harm to others. There are a number of different ways that you might proceed. You could fictionalize parts of your story by creating composite characters that represent two or more of the people in your life. You could show your manuscript to the person or persons who you fear might be hurt and get their permission to use the material. You could change names and write under a pseudonym so that no one knows who the people in your story are. You could find metaphorical substitutes for certain incidents. For example, if you had a sibling with a disease and you were afraid of announcing or publicizing it to people outside your family even though that affected how you grew up, you could invent an uncle who lived with you who had the disease or one that was similar. There is no one right way to avoid hurting others. Each situation has to be evaluated on how truthful you feel that you must be at that point in the story and how important the information is.

Fear number nine: I’m afraid the people that I write about will try to punish or sue me.

Use the techniques discussed in fear number eight to work around this. Also, familiarize yourself with the slander and libel laws. The website is a good resource.

Fear number ten: I’m afraid of losing my privacy.

Then you obviously want to write a book that will be read by a wider audience than just your family. Consider writing under a pseudonym.

What fears do you have that I have not mentioned? By articulating your fears and finding strategies to quiet them, you will be able to write more productively.

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of A Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part One

Bean curd person of high skill

Bean curd person of high skill (Photo credit: Wm Jas)

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 and experiences. 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.

Diana Edwards: Looking for Winter

Diana Edwards remembers an approaching winter in Massachusetts. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

The November landscape was beige and brown, and once-soft grass crunched as we crossed the hill toward the pond. We went down to the water’s edge where we could see the ice crystals in the mud and the thin layer of winter forming around the pond’s edge.

“It’s coming!” we shouted.

Then each of us broke off a thin piece of ice and popped it onto our tongue.  The wind and cold whistled up our jacket sleeves and down the space near our collars, but we didn’t mind too much.  We made our way along the shore pushing past the stiff, brittle remains of summer. We served as the ride for the hitch-hiking seeds of fall; while the thorns on the wild berry branches scratched our cheeks and the back of our hands.

We tromped along the shore to the dam at the edge of the pond near the road that fall, when I was nine or ten. Our father built the dam that formed the pond. Many times we watched him pull a wooden slat from the top of the dam when the water was high – spilling some of the pond to the brook that ran under the road, past the orchard, to a lower pond and still another dam. I’d seen him standing on a near-dry brook bed right below the dam one summer, when he said Massachusetts was desperate for rain. That cold 1950s day, we stood at the edge of the dam and stuck a toe out toward the top plank that held the water in place. The surface was slippery and we decided not to balance the short distance to the other side. In the summer, with bare feet, it was an easy feat.

We retraced our steps along the shore and sat for a while on cold board benches that faced the fire pit at the edge of the pond.  We talked about ice skating – spins and skating backwards. I dreamed about velvet, fur-trimmed skating skirts.  We poked the fire pit with long sticks and balanced atop the benches. We longed for marshmellows, hot chocolate, and popcorn. In the distance, we heard Mother ringing the bell for us to come in.  We tossed the sticks aside and raced across the field to the house.

“I hosie telling about the ice!” my sister shouted.

Beverly Ann Brown Ball: “Back Home Again in Indiana…” Along the Elkhart River

Sometimes memoir takes the form of poetry. Beverly Ann Brown Ball wrote this poem for her family using a technique called branching after a workshop on writing memoirs in the summer of 2011.

I was born in Elkhart Township,

in Elkhart County,

along the Elkhart River

(in north-cental Indiana),

when my father was Elkhart County

Agricultural Agent –

My mother used to tease me saying


She almost named me ‘Elkhart’!

‘Along the Elkhart River’ …

is where I was born;

It’s where, after dark & a long dusty day in the fields,

it’s where,

70 years or so ago,

I remember the excitement of being afloat & paddling –

my very first swimming.

Along the Elkhart River,

on Grandpa Brown’s adjoining farm barnyard,

on Sunday afternoons,

Amish courting couples parked their buggies,

went across the bridge to Bruces’

& rented  rowboats –

Brown cousins, too,

played catch in the Elkhart River,

then went running to Bruces



their ball was floating down the river!

In cold weather

these Brown cousins ice skated

beside the shore of the Elkhart River –

Years later,

(in the 90s’),

when we both worked in the

the Elkhart County Courthouse,

during lunch break,

Alice took me to her home,

‘Down by the Riverside’,

where we had played

& called to one another across the river

when we were girls growing up –

(as had  her mother

& Aunt Catherine,

Until Grandma stopped them,

saying it was “undignified”)

In the early 30s’,

during her cross-country auto trip,

My mother wrote in her diary that

the Elkhart River

was the loveliest spot that she had seen,


When she died,

some 60 years later,

I was glad to stay

with Alice & her husband

so near the Elkhart River

‘Elkhart River’, ‘Elkhart River’,

Elkhart River in Elkhart Township,

Elkhart County, Indiana –

Elkhart River: Here runs some of my Fondest Memories of

Back Home Again in Indiana”