Like any significant project, it can be hard to know where to start when you sit down to write your memoir.
First, you have what every writer in any genre faces: the technicalities of getting that story onto a page. But memoir writers have the added challenge of navigating your feelings about sharing your story. It can be completely overwhelming. You might worry about what other people will think about you sharing your story, and some of you might even tell yourself the lie that your story isn’t worth telling.
The very first thing I want you to do is to take a breath… breathe in, exhale out. Okay, for now, let’s put all those worries aside (we’ll deal with them later, so consider this a pause).
Now, let’s start from the very beginning, shall we?
WHAT IS A MEMOIR?
A memoir is a story about a particular period of a person’s life. It’s penned by the person who experienced the story (or their ghostwriter). Unlike a biography or an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a specific timeframe, not the whole life. A memoir could tell a story of a short period (days) or it could span decades, depending on the focus, but it does not include everything about a person’s life.
Read that last line again.
Understanding that your memoir will only focus on a portion of your story should help ease the weight on your shoulders and make the task seem a bit more manageable.
DETERMINE YOUR FOCUS
Since you don’t need to record your entire life for your memoir, the first step in your memoir writing is to be clear on your focus. What is your story going to be? What are you going to write about, exactly?
Here are some examples of specific themes that may help inspire you:
- Your experience working in your profession
- Surviving a trauma (illness, injury, abuse)
- A defining instance in your career
- Dealing with adversity
- Spiritual or religious transformation
- Your experience living with a chronic illness/condition
- Travel experiences
- Taking on a wellness/physical challenge
These are just a handful of examples, so don’t fret if your idea doesn’t fit neatly in these categories.
Once you decide on your focus, write it down! Jot it down on a sticky note and stick it to your screen or write it at the top of every page. Sit with it for a bit and get comfortable because it will be your guide through this whole process.
WHAT AND WHO YOU SHOULD INCLUDE
Let’s pause for a moment. For reasons that will become clear, I want you to think of a movie you know well. It can be an annual favourite or one that you just saw recently. It should be a movie that you enjoyed, though, and one you thought was well done.
Isn’t it amazing that such a compelling and detailed story can be told in less than 2 hours?
That you can know and connect with characters in such a short time?
That you can cry and laugh and completely relate to one of the characters you haven’t even met?
That isn’t an accident, movie writers have mastered the art of storytelling within the traditional boundaries of a film. They are focused on the plot and include only the characters and storylines that serve it.
I find it helpful to think of your story like a movie. In fact, I’ll often tell my writers to think of their story as if it were unfolding on stage. Each character present in a scene needs to serve a purpose. And, like a movie, you need to have hyperfocus and include only the elements that serve the focus of the story.
Write your focus at the top of a blank page and do a brain dump about every experience in your life that relates to that focus. You may decide not to include all of these experiences in your final manuscript, but this exercise will allow you to focus on your story.
SET BOUNDARIES AND PRIORITIZE SELF CARE
Even the preliminary process of thinking about starting to write your memoir can be enough to trigger emotional responses. Depending on the nature of your story, this can vary from a feeling of unease to debilitating anxiety. Honour these feelings, don’t push them away. Take the time you need to process and start the process only when you are ready.
For memoir writers writing about trauma or difficult experiences: Only you will know if you are ready to share your story. You might be able to push through some of those uncertain feelings to a place where the writing becomes therapeutic; however, it’s also possible that writing before you’re ready will cause harm in your healing journey. You may want to consult with your therapist or other healthcare professionals before undertaking this journey.
ARE YOU READY?
While there will never be a perfect time to start, I believe that you are more ready than you give yourself credit for.
If you’d like some additional support along your journey, I would love nothing more than to help you get your story into the world. Contact me to chat about my coaching packages—I take on a limited number of coaching clients, so I do encourage you to reach out as early as possible if this appeals to you.
Would you like to connect with other writers working on their memoirs? I offer a group Memoir Writing Class twice a year. Visit this page for more info on when the next class begins and how to register.
Remember: You’ve already lived the experience and came out on the other side! So, as long as you feel safe and supported, now is the time to write. You got this.