When you’re writing your memoirs, it can be difficult to know which stories should be included and which should be left out. It can also be difficult to write down those stories in a meaningful way if writing has never been your thing or if it’s a skill you haven’t practiced in a while. These memoir writing exercises can help you get your memories converted into words and help you sort out the best from the rest so you can craft a meaningful tale.
Exercise #1: The List
Whether the memoirs are about yourself or about someone else, there are positive and negative aspects to each story that could be included. The goal of the memoirs is to tell a story that has an overall arc from beginning to end, so not every memory needs to be included to make it meaningful to the reader.
For example: let’s say you’re writing a story about your father, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The goal of the story is to talk about how he is fighting this disease like he’s always been a fighter. Would it be more important to talk about how he fought and won against alcoholism, became a VP of the company he worked for all his life, or the moment you found out he had an affair?
Although all three stories help to define the person, the writer of the memoir has a responsibility to tell a specific story. Each part of it should lead to that, so in this instance, the affair would likely be left out.
Exercise #2: The Chronology
What tends to trip up a lot of writers when it comes to memoirs is that they treat it like an autobiography. Memoirs are about a person’s expertise or a specific story arc from their life – like how they’ve always been a fighter. An autobiography is more of the story of an entire life, from beginning to end… or at least to the present day if you’re writing about yourself.
To avoid the trap of creating an autobiography instead of memoirs, it can be helpful to create a chronology of the life being written about. Give it a timeline and then start putting in key events where they happened. This will give you a visual cue to follow that will help you write out the memoirs in a way that makes sense.
Exercise #3: Going Beyond
Many memoirs have to do with specific memories that someone has shared with a writer or that you want to write about from your own life. What makes this type of story so rich, however, is that everything has a story that can be shared. Maybe your home was the location of a significant event in history. Writing the memoirs of your home can then be just as meaningful as your own memoirs.
This type of story requires accuracy to make it real and meaningful to the reader. That means you’ll need to work on your research and reporting skills. As practice, pick a subject that interests you. Then go to the library and find out who the first person was that began to study or work on that subject. Look for breakthrough events and who created them, like Thomas Edison and his version of the light bulb in the story of electricity distribution.
As a final step, turn those facts into a short story – not an essay. This will help you be able to turn reported facts into a fun memoir to read.
Exercise #4: It’s All in the Descriptions
Memoirs come to life when the writer can transport the reader to the moment being talked about. The only way this can happen is if the writer can engage the reader’s senses. This means a complete description must be involved in the memoir.
Yet a memoir cannot only be about descriptions. Each sentence must also be able to move the story forward in some way. Here’s an example to consider.
It was the first day of school. Third grade. We had just moved into this town and I knew no one. As I stepped onto the bus, it felt like there were dozens of eyes drilling right through me. Would any of these kids want to be my friend? Or was this going to be a year of loneliness?
Senses can be engaged through sights, sounds, taste memories, or thoughts that the reader can relate to from their own lives. The goal here should be to answer the six questions of journalism: who, what, where, when, why, and how.
If you can do that, then you can create memoirs that will help to tell a story in the way that you or the person you’re writing about experienced it.
Are You Ready To Start Writing a Memoir?
These memoir writing exercises can help you begin to put some structure to your memories or the stories you’ve found out about others in a meaningful way. As long as the stories feel real, keep moving forward, and offer a lesson that the reader can learn, then it will accomplish its goal.
What is most difficult about writing a memoir is having readers judge its validity. After all, many memoirs are written about personal experiences. It takes courage to put yourself out there like that, not knowing if your story will be accepted. Remember this: you’re ultimately writing a memoir for you. Create something you’d like to read and there will be others who also want to read it.
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