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How Do You Start a Memoir?

A would-be memoirist contacted me the other day. “I’ve been writing now for several months,” she said. “But I can’t get it going. Where should I start?’

“What have you tried?” I asked.

“I’ve been reading books on memoir. I understand the difference between memoir and autobiography now, but I’m not sure which it is that I’m writing,” she said.

“So what have you written so far?” I probed again.

“”Well, it’s complicated. There are parts of my childhood that I want to include. And then I have to talk about the first marriage. I was thinking I might  start with the divorce, but then you wouldn’t know about-”

“What have you written?” I jumped in before she was really finished with her explanation. As I asked my question, I knew I wasn’t going to get an answer.  And I didn’t.  She was lost in the swamp of possibility.


Question: How do you start a memoir?

Answer:  With pencil and paper. (Computer if you prefer.)

There’s a time to read and study. And a time to act. “Boldness has genius in it,” Geothe wrote. Perhaps he was writing a memoir at the time.

Nothing wrong with reading the books and taking the classes (as a teacher myself and a student of memoir, I know the value, but …), there comes a time to move beyond theory, to jump in, and write. If you’re a runner, you can’t spend your whole time tying your shoes. You’ve got to get into the starting block and go.

What’s a writer’s equivalent of the starting block?  Pick a scene. Something from your life that interests you, that made an impression, perhaps something that has haunted you, that you don’t understand but have a lot of feeling about. Now, get that scene down on on paper. Don’t write about it. Get those characters and that action and the dialogue and the behavior, the setting and the hubbub, put it on the page, mess all over that page, write it and then write some more, go into the confusion and the pain, go into the joy and the insight, and when you’ve got it all down, then set it aside for a a bit, and after a few days, come back and see what ‘s there, and get rid of 50% of it at least, ask yourself what was your deepest desire at the time of that scene, and circle the heart of the scene, and maybe write it again, and then see what you’ve got.

If you do that, you may not have the first chapter of your memoir, but you will have taken a BIG step forward, that I promise. “Boldness has genius in it.” There’s a time to stop thinking, stop contemplating, stop trying to figure it out. Trust the pen. Trust the action. Dive in and get wet.

Let me know how it goes, would you?