Writing Your Memoir Is Easier Than You Think


I’ve heard it many times in my classes: Your family and friends want you to write your memoir. They say you’ve had an interesting life, and you have such great stories to tell. They want it all in writing for their kids, your grandkids.

But who has the time? And really, is your life all that interesting? Plus, you gave up writing after that last school assignment many moons ago.

Did you know clinical studies show that people who wrote about emotional events in their lives for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days showed increases in therapeutic T-cells for the following six weeks?

James Pennebaker, author of Opening Up by Writing It Down, published several studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing improvements in the symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritisand chronic fatigue syndrome among people who wrote about their lives.

Whether or not you ever show your stories to another human being, writing them is good for your health.

We all have the same 24 hours a day, and as we age, those hours fly by. Retirement days are easily filled with activities. Still, I managed to write and publish a memoir in 2008, at the age of 62.

One trick I used is the Pomodoro Technique, writing for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, then writing for another 25 minutes. (It’s named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by its developer, Francesco Cirillo. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato!)

That was just enough to get me started, it was manageable in my busy day, and often led to longer sessions when I didn’t want to stop. You can write for three or four Pomodoro’s, then take a longer break. Or you could just try 20 minutes a day, like Pennebaker’s trial subjects. Who doesn’t have 20 minutes a day to reflect on her life?

Maybe you’re a celebrity, and your memoir will be fun to read. But we all learn more about getting through life from reading about so-called ordinary people who coped with grief, illness, crappy jobs, boredom, depression and the rest of life’s hurdles.

Plus, reading what they have to say about what they loved may remind us of what we forget and want to try again. Remember ballroom dancing, gardening, drawing, piano playing? Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, inspired me to take more hikes in the wilderness. And after reading Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, I’ll never look at those beautiful birds the same way again.

Memoir writing is nothing like those school reports we slaved over. The rules are being bent so often they barely exist. You write emails, don’t you? Remember pen pals? Letters to a friend?

Modern memoirs, even the published ones, are written in a casual, conversational style. Sure, writing well takes practice, but so does making pies, playing the piano, and Zumba dancing. Think of it as a skill you are building for the sheer pleasure of it.

You can choose what to include and what to leave out. You don’t have to write your whole life story. A memoir is a slice of life – your career, love life, travel, marriage, illness… the list is endless.

You don’t need permission from anyone to own your story. Tell the truth, and don’t share resentments or try to get revenge. Get it down first, in what writer Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Then consider taking out the parts that might hurt innocent bystanders. That’s what revising is for.

Make it even easier on yourself and have fun with it by taking a class, online or in person, or joining a group to share feedback with each other. It can even lead to new friendships.

Make lists of your favorite people, books, jobs, vacations, homes. Then pick one each day to write about.

Make a list of people you have loved. Then pick one, put their name in the center of a page, and draw six lines out from it like spokes of a wheel. At the end of each line, answer one of these questions: 

  1. What is (or was) their favorite thing?
  2. What do you know about their looks?
  3. What is their best quality?
  4. What is something they might typically say?
  5. What is their life’s dream?
  6. What was their worst bad habit?

Now pick one of these traits, set a timer (or a Pomodoro!) for 15 minutes, and write about how you came to recognize it.

You don’t have to write a whole book. Just a page at a time, a few minutes a day, and you might decide you like recording the people and places your life has touched. If no one reads it but you, it’s still a worthy practice, for your own emotional health. But I hope you decide to share it with the ones you love.

How often do you sit down and reflect on your life? Do you write down your thoughts? Who do you write for? Have you considered compiling your thoughts and experiences in a memoir? If something’s stopping you, what is it?



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