notes from “how to write a memoir”


Stumbled upon “How to Write a Memoir” article via the comment section of Austin Kleon’s blog.

Below are my notes for another “someday” bucket list of writing a memoir.

Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into.

Custodians of memory — it’s the second time I’ve read the term, “custodian” to describe a writer this week. Think the first one was from a book review of someone’s memoir. How fitting.

Too often memories die with their owner, and too often time surprises us by running out.

How many memories will be lost with my parents? What’s the best way to get stories from my parents?

Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

Agreed – writing is a “powerful search mechanism” and coping mechanism. I can recall how many times I went back to my many neglected blogs to write about my hardships. I call it poor person’s therapy. It helps me to come to terms with my situation and ultimately, help me realize that everything will be OK.

Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.

Interesting yet true. My product is me. Oddly, my first instinct was to connect this sentence to credit score companies, who sell me and my credit score. Maybe because the Equifax data breach is still top of mind.

Finally, it’s your story. You’re the one who has done all the work. If your sister has a problem with your memoir, she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past.

Empowering and bold: “nobody has a monopoly on the shared past.”

…We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives. For them, writing a memoir became an act of healing.

An act of healing. My coping mechanism.

Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control.

Tour guide of my own life. Interesting!

My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory.

Think small. Everybody seems to be saying something along the lines of “think big” but many the trick to life is learn to be grateful about small things in life. And baby steps may lead to big things.

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

What a great way to take the weight off your shoulders about writing and just write whatever makes  you happy. In some ways, this is what this blog is about. I don’t necessarily have a content calendar or things that I have to write.

I’m going to continue this experiment for about a year to identify the topics that I’m interested in the most and go from there.

I’m so tempted to start something new, like a blog about relationship in the ages of apps, or about various social science effects, but I’m trying to constrain myself from starting too many things and just using this blog as a spring board for things that I’m actually interested in and can continue to write.

It’s tedious and anticlimactic, but that’s what life is like.

Photo by on Unsplash

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