A lovely 92 year-old friend has written her “memoirs” and published just enough copies for family and close friends. She reminds the whole clan of all the highlights of their growing up years and all the fun they had together. She also mentions some of the sad and even tragic times as they lost a son in a house fire. Her memoir is something for each family member to treasure forever. She isn’t a writer—she’s just a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who wanted to leave a legacy for her loved ones.
You can do it too. First of all, you need to know the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. An autobiography is a true account of a writer’s entire life and it is written in first person. A memoir is also true, but it’s based on memories of selected important times in a person’s life. It’s like a series of scenes strung together and often it is written in fiction form with dialogue and description, plot and character. A memoir captures the thoughts and feelings that went along with life events. It requires the writer to be truthful and vulnerable while telling some of the stories of his or her life.
You’ll want to begin with an outline or list of all the stories you want to tell so that you can determine the best organization of the memoir. Will you tell it chronologically as time unfolds or will you give a section to each of your children? Perhaps you’ll write about different places and organize the material that way. Whatever you do, be sure to get some notes down before you start writing so that you won’t lose your way later on.
If you can write on a computer, you’ll save a lot of time with adding, deleting and moving pieces around. If not, write away on that paper and be satisfied. If you self-publish you can find someone to input the words for you and edit for errors as well. It’s always a good idea to have others read through your work as a writer often becomes blind to their own mistakes.
Remember that each story has to have an element of conflict, trouble, a humorous situation and how all of that was resolved. Readers want to remember how the events played out. Who won, who lost, who fell in the mud puddle, who got bumped over by the billy goat. And remember that you’ll want to skip those events or situations that might bring pain to another if put into print. There are plenty of good stories without digging up family skeletons.
If you need to do research to get all the facts in place for your memoir, be sure to use your local library and the reference librarians. They just love to find information for people. You might also use state or county records, old newspaper articles, and, of course, the internet. Keep a list of the resources you’ve used as a bibliography.
It’s amazing to me that many young children have no sense of their family history at all. The fast pace of our lives keeps us in the present and if stories aren’t captured by those who lived them and know them intimately, they will eventually be lost. Don’t let that happen in your family—get busy and get those stories down on paper. Your memoir will become a tribute to your family history with all its highlights and will be passed down by family members for generations to come.
For one of the best rundowns on how and why to write your memoir, read this article by author William Zinsser. Mr. Zinsser, who was a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune and writing professor at Yale University is best known for his clear and easy to read book on writing, On Writing Well.