It’s Your Memoir, but Where Should it Start?

Tough question. And you thought the toughest one was whether or not to attempt a memoir. Well, I’m proud of you for getting this far anyway. Figuring out precisely where to start can be a tricky proposition for some, and ridiculously easy for others.

Options1The key is to understand who you wish to reach and what you wish to convey. If your concern is family history, and not just your own role in it, then an historical approach is probably in order. Whether or not you break out a family tree or page after page of genealogical charts and diagrams is fodder for another discussion. For now, let’s assume this memoir is about you.

Fortunately, you’re the absolute expert on YOU! Where do you want to take this journey? Perhaps your career has been unusual, or has provided the means to do the unusual, or meet people the rest of us never will. Maybe you traveled to exotic places or were involved in events that shaped history, the world, or something closer to home: your family, your pets, and maybe even yourself.

On the other hand, your life may have been blessed with a variety of influences–far more than could be squeezed into a simple thing like a career. In that case, maybe all you need to focus on are the highlights–a magical journey, parts of a job, an amazing romance. The sum of those disparate parts might make for wonderful reading.

Options2Or, maybe your life has been marked most significantly by hardship, illness, or abuse. More than one memoir has served admirably as a catharsis or even a purgative. Exposing those dark spots in the past to the light of truth can have a dramatic healing effect. (Be prepared, however, for some push back if you name names and reveal secrets. Some folks just can’t handle the truth, especially if they don’t have the means to spin it in their own favor. I refer to people of this ilk as cretins. They aren’t worth the time it takes to worry about ’em.)

Probably the easiest way to move forward is to make a list of the most memorable things that have happened in your life. Write down each event on an index card with enough details to insure you’ll recall exactly what experience/occasion you had in mind. Then move on to the next. When you’re done, you can put them in whatever order suits your fancy. Then you can simply pick out one of those cards every time you sit down to work on your project and focus on just that Options3event.

Look stuff up; contact others who were there; dig out old letters, albums, yearbooks, memorabilia–anything that will help you paint an accurate picture. Don’t worry about length, style, spelling, punctuation, or anything else. Focus entirely on getting the information down in a format you can save. There will be plenty of time later to edit the details and make it all pretty, and hopefully, exciting.

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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6 Responses to It’s Your Memoir, but Where Should it Start?

  1. An-l says:

    Josh, wish you’d been around the first eight years I was ELM. Your directions simplifies the way to begin writing a memoir so much better than the method I used. It probably wouldn’t have taken me as long to complete mine if I had done it this way. Great story! Annel

  2. joshlangston says:

    Thanks, Annel! A little reassurance never hurts anyone.

  3. dorisreidy says:

    I dunno, Josh, I think you need to go deeper into “the icky parts,” which affect not just the writer or the cretins who may object to being named. It may also involve telling secrets that are really not yours to tell, damaging parent/child relationships and revealing personal information that may come back to haunt you. Every life has such critters lurking in the corners; to tell or not, how to tell, what to tell – those are big questions for memoir writers, always keeping in mind that truth is subjective and one man’s memory may be another man’s “huh?”.

  4. joshlangston says:

    Please understand, I have nothing against “Icky parts” and readily admit reading about them may provide hours of entertainment for certain types of folk. That said, I’ve never been a fan of Tell-Alls. It’s just not my thing. I will edit them, however. Will I be seeing yours anytime soon?

  5. In my family’s history there was an unsolved murder except I know who died and who killed him. All involved are dead now but their children are around. Oh what to tell?

  6. joshlangston says:

    I suspect I’d go with “all” of it. Depending on how much there is to tell, you might want to consider making a smaller, targeted memoir that stands alone rather than try to make it a part of a larger piece.

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