Tips on Writing a Memoir

Check out these tips on writing a memoir to help you prepare to tell your life story, whether as a legacy or as a published book.


| December 2014


Preparing to tell your life story is less complicated than you think, with expert help from Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann in Your Life is a Book (Sasquatch Books, 2014). Peterson is the author of eighteen books, including two memoirs, and Freymann a top literary agent with years of experience working with memoirs; both offer tips on writing a memoir thoughtfully and skillfully, with exercises to help jump start your writing, examples of well-executed passages and advice on publishing your work. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, “Field Notes on Your Life.”

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

Keeping a Journal as a Record

Is keeping a journal, a blog, a photo album, or a scrapbook of letters and ideas a good thing? Absolutely! Journaling can be an essential element of your daily writing practice, because it flexes the writing muscles and, like a good massage, loosens the tense ones. Because it is for your eyes only, you are free to express anything without worrying about your phrasing, your grammar, your punctuation, or how it all sounds. The process can be wonderfully liberating.

No matter if you jot down notes spontaneously during the day or sit down at a specific time, journal writing can open the door to your subconscious and help bring buried memories to the surface. It is also an effective way of consciously working through dilemmas. In addition to journaling, you may want to keep a record of the little observations, phrases, and thoughts you’ve experienced or encountered each day. Think of this journal as raw material the way an artist sketches details for later development. Ideally, if you are organized enough, these notes would be kept in a separate notebook that you keep with you wherever you go, or in a folder on your computer or electronic tablet.

Don’t worry if you are not journaling daily. It isn’t a question of frequency; it’s one of doing it when and as you can, and doing it seriously. There’s no question that there have been times in Sarah Jane’s life when nothing has been as unequivocally helpful. For her, journaling has been a way to look at a painful feeling or an urgent problem, examine it, and then somehow, almost magically, write her way to insight—to a truth that resonates in that moment.

Brenda doesn’t do much journaling, nor has she ever kept a diary, except of her dreams. Perhaps her mother’s years in the CIA, or the fact that in her family three people had top-security clearance from the US government, instilled in Brenda at a very early age that one’s secrets must be hidden or coded. So she kept a rather inscrutable dream journal that no one else could decipher. When she wrote her two memoirs, Brenda turned instead to family photos, letters, Moleskine notebooks, and audio notes that she made with her cell phone recorder app.

AmericasFootprints
12/31/2014 12:09:23 PM

I like how you mention that writing a memoir "can even help heal trauma". Personally this has been the case for me. Not necessary an injury, but more like an 'open door' to my past that was never fully closed. Writing / telling them in my memoir has helped bring closure to certain memories that have plagued me for so long.