Ten Tips On Getting Started With Writing Memoir

1. Promise to put in seven hours a week.

2. You don't need to write everything all at once, or even ever. If you focus on one aspect of one topic at a time, you'll be able to explore it in detail, and be able to say something of significance. This is likely to be much more satisfying than jumping around from topic to topic, skimming surfaces, and that alone will keep you going.

3. Give yourself small assignments, by the week, if you can't figure out where to start. One week you can, say, write about your wedding. Another week you can write about a best friend in fourth grade. Another week you can cover your memories, recent as well as distant, of your mother. By doing this, you can see what you most want to write about and what doesn't actually interest you as much as you'd expected.

4. Read widely and deeply. Focus on new work, if you're interested in getting published. Then you'll get a sense of what is more likely to appeal to today's reader. You'll also start to get a better sense of professional standards.

5. If it's boring to you as you write it, it's guaranteed to be boring to the reader. What should you do if you're boring yourself? Pick a different topic to write about, or jump over the place in the piece that's particularly dull. You'll probably find that, with some creativity (as well as with some tricks that you can learn by reading other writers), you won't need that tedious section anyway.

6. There's a difference between writing for yourself, writing for therapeutic purposes, and writing for publication. Which are you doing? That decision will determine how much you revise, and whether or not you seek the involvement of a teacher or writing group.

7. There's a difference between a listing of facts and storytelling. A long parade of facts (and dates and detailed names) can start to feel like a lesson in a history book. Storytelling is almost always more interesting. It also requires the use of fictional devices such as character, scene, and dialogue, and so it can almost read like a novel. Readers love this, and it's also much more absorbing to write.

8. You don't have to do it all from memory. Supplement with interviews of family members, photo albums, any documents you can find, old songs that trigger recollections, etc.

9. If you're uncomfortable writing about unpleasant things other people did, consider keeping your work private, changing their names, or waiting until they've died. What you say will affect people, so act responsibly. I generally recommend that writers not use the memoir form to get back at someone who did you wrong, because the risk is that the writing will be one-sided and possibly even come off as self-pitying. This will make readers less sympathetic to your plight than you might hope for, which will only add insult to injury. If, though, you use memoir to develop other characters enough for readers to understand their actions (as, say, Frank McCourt did with his father in Angela's Ashes), or to develop the phenomenon in which they participated (slavery, incest, etc.) so it can be seen in a fresh and insightful way, you'll stand a better chance of winning over readers.

10. If this is for publication, revise, revise, revise.


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