Finding the Focus of Your Memoir

This pandemic is driving many of us to think about life, the universe, and everything – including writing a memoir. I’ve had several calls from aspiring memoir writers. One woman, for instance, said she’d survived a difficult childhood. She wanted to share that story with others, to let them know that it is possible to get through hard times, that violence doesn’t have to be a cycle, and that things will get better. But she said she wasn’t a “writer.” She wondered how to get started.

There are many quick start/quick finish devices for writing. You’ve probably seen some on social media—write a book in 60 days! publish a book with the ABC method! etc. I can’t say how effective any of these are for writing a book, but there are some useful devices for getting started—especially for those who say, “I’m not a writer.”

A TikTok video I watched, for instance, suggested aspiring memoir writers begin by thinking of the event or the time that they want to write about. Then, write 10 lessons learned from that. Then, write three to five sentences about each of those lessons. The result is a framework for a memoir.

I told my caller I wouldn’t pose the 10 sections as “lessons” but rather as stories. In this context, the stories aren’t fictional but events or interactions that happened, even if they didn’t seem important at the time.

Thinking of your life as a series of scenes or stories helps you find the focus your memoir needs. You can’t write everything that’s happened in your life! If your memoir’s overarching theme is that there’s hope for the future, then choose stories that demonstrate that. And a few that illustrate the opposite. For example, times in your life when you didn’t have hope, you gave up, or maybe did something unwise in response (viewed with your now-self perspective, of course). The stories each relate, in some manner, to a central theme.

“But, what if I don’t have a theme?” I hear you say. Ah, I would wager that if asked to write down 10 critical events in your life, you would see that a theme unifies them. Possibly one of which you weren’t even aware.

The other benefit of this device is that as you write about an event you think is paramount, you may begin to remember other stories from that time. Other examples of your theme, perhaps events you’d forgotten or buried.

There are other devices for getting started or organizing your ideas. Free writing, or creating a mind map, serves the same purpose. The latter, in particular, is useful for managing data and facts in a how-to or self-help book, but they help a memoir writer, too. With any of these devices, the aim is to get started! To discover and clarify the central theme of your book and the examples and stories that support it. Which technique is best? The one that works for you!

If you’re not sure how to start your memoir, try the 10 stories approach. Then, put it away for a day or so before coming back to it. See if there is a unifying thread that runs through all of your selected stories.

Let me know if you have a technique that kick-starts your writing. Or, try the 10 stories approach and let me know how it goes.

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My new book, The HOW TO WRITE A BOOK Book, It’s Not about the Writing, available now on Amazon.

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