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Got a Story to Tell?

Has anyone ever said you should write a book? Maybe you have some interesting characters in your family or a story or two worth telling. Perhaps you were involved in a defining moment in history. Or maybe you would like to keep your children and grandchildren aware of the family’s roots. Writing a memoir can help preserve history as experienced through your personal perspective. Whether or not you feel the reading public at-large would be interested in your story, there can be other reasons for composing it.

Memoir writing not only recounts history; it helps put the events of your life in order. Writing can help establish a fresh perspective and open new avenues of self-discovery. Digging through your memory banks can produce answers to questions that may have bothered you. It may help you locate lost relatives or clarify family events that have previously been a hazy memory. The reasons for writing a memoir are as varied as we are, but the steps needed to put words to paper are the same—no matter what our personal goals. The real challenge, however, is how to get started.

Getting Started

Like most nonfiction writing, a memoir can best be accomplished by starting with an outline. The outline should be chronological and contain the specific people or events you are most interested in writing about, along with the specific timeframe you would like to cover. To start out by trying to cover your entire life is probably not the best way to go, since it will dilute your story and make the task seem onerous right from the start. Once you have a basic working frame, you can begin to gather information to fill in the blanks around the story. Then, if you feel there is more to be added to the story, you can always add to your outline. Think of each outline entry as a possible chapter in your memoir.

Besides keeping the chapters chronological, it is helpful to put them in a natural linking order. For example, perhaps you have decided to write about moving to the United States from a foreign country when you were five years old. Your initial outline might look like this:

I.                   Living in the USA

A.     The physical move.

1.       where you came from

2.      how you traveled

3.      when

4.      who came with you

5.      what you brought

6.      why you moved here

Note: Try to write as much as you can about each of these points—not just one sentence. Make notes of the people you need to talk to who can provide more information, i.e., those who traveled with you or those who stayed behind. Try to give reasons for what you brought, why you left your homeland, or why you chose a certain geographic area. When you have exhausted all these topics, move on to the next part of your outline, which might be:

B.     Your American neighborhood


Note: Use the who, what, when, why and where approach again to form the initial structure for your memoir.

The hunt for information will probably be both the most fascinating and the most arduous part of your memoir. First, gather all the material you have at hand: scrapbooks, old photographs and family albums, letters, newspaper clippings, magazines and so forth. Separate them according to their relevance to your outline. Next, note living family members who can provide or share more information with you, or make a list of items you would like to research in the library or online. Most of all, have fun on your hunt for buried family treasure!


This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.