This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
There are many reasons to write your memoir. Perhaps you’d like to learn more about your family, write down your life story for future generations to read, search for personal identity or gain some insight into your past. This very useful guide from Alexandra Wilson, the founder of Writing Events Bath, may be just the spur you need to start putting pen to paper…
One advantage of getting older is having more memories to look back on and more tales to tell. So why not write your memoir?
Writing a memoir is creative and enjoyable. It helps make sense of the choices (good and bad) you’ve made and can be a cathartic experience as well as a legacy for your children and grandchildren. I’ve left out the chance of winning the Booker, but never say never.
So where do you start? If you haven’t already, I recommend reading a few to get into the zone. Three of my favourites are Nigel Slater’s Toast, Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons, about moving to rural Spain, and Blake Morrison’s poignant, When Did You Last See Your Father? I haven’t read From Yolo to Solo by Sandra Reekie yet, but in her recent review, Annabel described it as ‘soul-lifting’ so that goes on my list.
In my memoir workshops, every story I hear is different. A woman whose passion for tortoises took her on global adventures, a man who spent a year in Patagonia in search of a great uncle, or nearer home, someone wanting to write about the route out of a bad marriage. We all have stories to tell. My message is, pick up that pen and let’s go.
Some main tips before you start. Decide on the time span of your memoir. This will give you boundaries so you are not overwhelmed with material. Whether your particular memoir covers a year, a decade or several, be as specific about dates as you can.
Take note – a memoir is not the same as an autobiography. Whereas an autobiography details a whole life, a memoir focuses on a specific time or feature of your life.
In writing your memoir, there’s no need to slavishly check every date and fact. Unless you are one of those politicians who keeps meticulous diaries, you will never accurately remember events or conversations from long ago, but nor will anyone else, so don’t be afraid to write your own version.
Remember, although a memoir is true, it has many of the same elements as fiction; description, interesting characters and dialogue. If you can’t remember conversations, invent them, it’s the essence of what was said that you are aiming for, not the actual spoken words.
Every memoir is a journey. A journey from rags to riches, loneliness to love, illness to health, or the pursuit of a dream. You will have faced challenges on that journey, be it travelling the Silk Road, your interesting career, surviving a difficult childhood, or working through grief as in H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. But a memoir doesn’t have to be miserable, remember the classic Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee? A vivid memoir of a blissful childhood in a Cotswold village before the First World War.
And just as every memoir is a journey, every journey needs a map to help navigate the mass of material that is your life.
Once you have chosen your time span, break it up into chapters, aim for 18- 20. The actual finished length is up to you, depending on whether you are aiming to publish commercially or print it out yourself. Breaking it up into chapters will make your book feel more manageable.
Next, write a list of events, the people and anything else that could go into each chapter. Try to include the ups and downs you encountered.
At this stage don’t worry about changing names, that can come later. It’s a personal decision how honest to be about people you’re writing about, as long as you don’t libel them. You want to get your book written so, build your mountain then climb it. If you start worrying about upsetting people, you will stall. Give each chapter a title, you can change them later but these are your stepping stones.
Now is the time to excavate your memories. Talk to anyone who knew you, study old photographs, what were you wearing? Where were you, when and what were you doing there? Who took it? Are there other people in the photo? Have a guess at what you were you thinking and feeling.
Research what people were eating, fashions for food changes, look at old cookery books (no quinoa in sight). Make a list of world events, the cost of things, the music, tv programmes and films that were current. Details will add richness to your memoir.
Write your memoir in the first person. Most memoirs are written in the past tense, appropriate when you are writing about things that have happened. i.e. I was sent to boarding school when I was …
Just as it’s helpful to choose where to begin your memoir, it’s good to know when to end it. Some endings are obvious, such as returning home after travelling, but if it’s not obvious think about what had changed for you. Did you get what you were looking for when you set out? Maybe you have come full circle.
As a last exercise, write the last couple of paragraphs of your memoir, but don’t worry, I repeat my mantra, you can always change it later. And remember, life is a journey so enjoy the trip.
Ps. If you do win the Booker, please can I have an invitation to the book launch. Alexandra Wilson
You can read Alexandra’s article on The Proustian Effect here