Memoir Writing

People think about memoir writing for many reasons – some, like Michelle Obama, are approached by a publisher and asked to ‘write’ it (sometimes with help). Most, however, decide at some point in their lives that they’d like to put down a few things on paper. Maybe they fought in a war or had what they feel is an unusual life. Many simply feel that it’s important to record some family history, to leave a sort of legacy.

Writing our stories down is often therapeutic. It helps us process things, can give us peace and may be enriching for others to read. It also benefits our brain health by activating neurons – a sort of exercise for the brain which helps keep it fit.

Memoirs can take many different forms: they might be a photo album with carefully written photo captions, an incomplete journal, a video recording, or a 500-page book.

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria in Canada, and a Master of Art in Communication and Applied Linguistics from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. When I studied writing in the early 2000s, my professor told the class that we were all far too young to write a memoir. Our professor was of retirement age and still felt that she was too young to write her own memoir.

A few years later, I set out to record a slice of my life. I wouldn’t call it a memoir, but we’d moved continents and had experienced so many adventures I wanted to record. The focus of this work was on migration in the larger sense, but I soon realised that my story alone was incomplete and not representative of migration. I decided to write an anthology, a collection of stories about migration and women. The book that was eventually born from this is “Somewhere – Women’s Stories of Migration.” A slice of my ‘memoir’ is a chapter in the anthology, and I’m pleased with how the project grew. Helen Clark wrote the foreword, and the book has been well received internationally.

Not everyone is interested in writing, or wants a memoir recorded or created – but if you are interested in writing a little about your life, here are a few things that should help you.

It doesn’t matter how well you write – don’t allow yourself to be paralysed while you wait for perfect inspiration. Just start writing. Start with something you’re passionate about, or something that makes you happy. This is called a ‘hook.’ You might start with:

“The bear stood on his back legs and growled. My mother said ‘close your eyes…’”

Rather than:

“I was born at the Wellington City Hospital in 1938.”

Where and when you were born are important, but you’ll get to that later in the memoir when the reader is ‘hooked.’

The next thing to consider is who are you writing or recording this for? This might be a sort of diary or journal, just for you. Or it might be for your children and their children to read one day. Or are you hoping to have your memoir published for the general public? What will the reader be interested in? A detailed family history may interest some, but stories about bears and hurricanes might interest others.

Once you’ve started writing, you can try to refine your style. I don’t have enough space to go into this very much, but it may help you to consider these points:

  • Describe… use language such as ‘deep creases on his face’ rather than ‘old’, ‘inky world’ rather than ‘dark’…
  • Use similes (he waddled like a duck, his ears were as elephants’ ears, the waves rose like mountains around us…)
  • Describe things (‘the sweet scent of the pink roses tingled in our nostrils’ rather than ‘it smelled good’)
  • Write actively rather than passively (‘he gave me a book’ rather than ‘I was given a book’, ‘I went upstairs’ rather than ‘I was going upstairs’…)

After I write a section, I leave it for a few days. When I reread it, I am sometimes pleased with the result and colour it in blue. Some of the sections are ok and I leave them in black, some paragraphs are awful and I cut them out entirely or highlight them in yellow if they need further work.

Another useful tool can be to write what’s on your heart in one long thread, and then chop it up. You might start with the end, then go back to the beginning, or chop out sections etc. Some people’s minds need a frame: they will write out a map for their book, then begin writing it. Others just start to write and see where it goes. There is no wrong way of writing.

A few years ago, when I was a municipal councillor in Switzerland, I wrote a book about the elders in a small town. I interviewed everyone over 80, and created a few chapters about their lives. The first chapter was set during the Second World War. Switzerland was neutral and not at war, but there were guards at night making sure there was no invasion. The elders were children at the time, and I pieced together their stories into one long day and night filled with these children’s adventures and the stories of the people around them. The timeline was inaccurate as not all the adventures took place during that one day, but each story was true. We published black and white local pictures from the same year along with the stories. This book skirts the line between Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction, but it is a sort of memoir for the town.

I am now the Communications Coordinator for Age Concern Wellington Region and I enjoy writing articles and blog posts about our work and the people we work with. The articles I prepare could sometimes be called a profile about a person, a mini-biography of sorts. For many of the same reasons as outlined above, the people I interview and write about are often happy to have a small part of their lives recorded. They might even fold that story into their own memoir one day…

There are no absolute rules about memoir writing. It is your story. If you want to record it, it can be a rewarding an enjoyable process. The exercise should be beneficial no matter how you approach it.

If you would like more information about memoir writing, there are plenty of books on writing non-fiction and fiction, and some specifically about memoir writing. There are also plenty of interesting YouTube videos about writing (master classes etc). Unity Books and other bookshops can likely recommend some helpful resources.


~ Lorna Jane Harvey

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