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The device itself allows the writer to play with the conventions of autobiographical writing and be more experimental with form — much of the book is written in short, fragmented paragraphs, like snatches of memory that return and recombine. Whether you adopt a creative or more traditional approach to your memoir, know some of the landmark memoirs and what makes them great.


Michel de Montaigne, who lived during the French renaissance, is one of the first writers who paired autobiography with creativity and insight, and his essay-like memoirs written during the s are still read. Montaigne combines his own experiences with shrewd observations about his contemporary society. Read highly-regarded memoirs for insights into the many ways to tell your own true story.

One of the mistakes first-time memoirists make is to focus almost exclusively on describing their own subjective experience. Example: You write about a holiday spent in a cabin in the woods. You could describe how glad you were to get away from the city and your feelings about the cabin, but look for the items that readers will find most relatable. If there is adversity car breakdowns, finding the cabin in a terrible state or other dramatic incidents , make these the focus.

As Adair Lara notes in an article on writing memoir, a good memoir needs extensive cuts so that there are no extraneous facts or overemphasized details:. As you would when writing a fiction book, make sure that every scene in your memoir builds to a climax or important point. If writing a memoir of overcoming addiction, for example, try not to write extensively about how you frequent public libraries unless this somehow fits into and enriches the anecdote or story.

Begin your memoir with an incident that is uncommon in its dramatic or humourous content. Even if this means beginning in the middle of the story, you can retell events out of chronological order. But he begged off; he was too frail and the past was too painful. So she made the trip on her own in She took notes and photographs and talked with people in the village. Her despair hung over the class. I saw a heavy weight drop off her shoulders. She smiled a smile that none of us had seen before and said she would get started on the story right away.

How To Write A Memoir

The course ended, and no paper was handed in. I called her and she said she was still writing and needed more time. Then, one day, a page manuscript arrived in the mail. After I returned home my father and I spent three straight days together. He watched every minute of the four-hour video I made as if it were a masterpiece. He wanted to hear every detail of my trip: who I met, where I went, what I saw, what foods I liked and disliked, and how I was treated. I assured him that I was welcomed with open arms. Although I still have no photos of my family telling me what their faces looked like, I now have a mental picture of their character.

The fact that I was treated so well by complete strangers is a reflection of the respect my grandparents earned from the community. I gave my father boxes of letters and gifts from his old friends: Polish vodka and maps and framed photos and drawings of Plesna.

Memoir Vs. Autobiography

As I told him my stories he looked like an excited child waiting to open his birthday present. The sadness in his eyes also disappeared; he looked jubilant and giddy. Is it your house?

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You have become my eyes and ears and legs. Thank you for taking this trip. My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. That turned out to be the main lesson I learned by writing a book in called Writing About Your Life. I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey.

Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.

Writing Lessons: How to Begin a Memoir

One chapter is about serving in the army in World War II. Like most men of my generation, I recall that war as the pivotal experience of my life. I just tell one story about one trip I took across North Africa after our troopship landed at Casablanca. For six days I sat in the open door of that boxcar with my feet hanging out over Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

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  7. It was the most uncomfortable ride I ever took—and the best. Now, suddenly, I was in a landscape where everything was new—every sight and sound and smell.

    Write Your Memoir — The Red Lounge for Writers

    The eight months I spent in that exotic land were the start of a romance that has never cooled. They would make me a lifelong traveler to Africa and Asia and other remote cultures and would forever change how I thought about the world. Remember: Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

    As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. That will only make you anxious.

    Write Your Memoir Month

    Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. 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. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. Read our tribute to William Zinsser and his long years of work, both at the Scholar and elsewhere, here.

    William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well. With so many high-quality TV shows available to stream these days, we have a particular soft spot for British mystery shows, mainly recent ones, but also a few from the golden age of detection. Think murder, lace curtains, and quiet country villages. Our favorites range from a s adaptation of Miss Marple to the latest Sherlock Holmes series, proving that some golden ages are destined to continue. Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses. Newsletter Enter your email address to subscribe. Yet most budding memoirists produce first drafts that are flat. To transport readers and yourself , write vividly. This is done through detail, by using all your senses to fully re-create a moment in time.

    Start writing your story now.

    You can teach yourself to do this. Build your writing muscle. You have a writing muscle, and it needs exercise to perform well. Set a daily goal of writing , , or even 1, words. Set aside a regular time, like early morning, and be disciplined. Just focus on getting the story out.