How to Write a Memoir

For years my dad’s cousins have been telling me my writing reminds them of their grandmother, “Gangy”. She was known for having a way with words — a blogger before the days of blogging, they say. (How I love having this connection to the past!) There had been mentions of a memoir, but somehow ear infections, preschool drop off, and my own writing never seemed to afford me the time to read it. Recently one of them was thoughtful enough to send me a printed copy, and I knew it was time to dive in.

It turns out it’s the story of my great grandmother’s grandparents — their journey west as a young family. A toddler on horseback. A baby in a covered wagon. A life of adventure and hope. Since all the family pictures from the time were destroyed in a couple of tragic events, it’s all the more amazing.

It got me thinking, how cool would it be to pass on something like this about our lives today for generations to come? Of course it seems we document everything in photos and Facebook updates these days, but wouldn’t it be neat to have some thoughts jotted down in a notebook as well?


You don’t have to be a writer to capture meaningful moments in your life. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be well thought out. It doesn’t even have to be in chronological order. Just think about these things, grab a notebook, and go for it. I promise, whatever you end up with will be meaningful.

Turn off the computer.
Your handwriting and doodles will help personalize the story. (But if you feel it will be less distracting and give you more wiggle room for error, by all means type it.)

Remember, the facts are just the skeleton.
Of course dates and locations are an important part of the story, but most of that information can be tracked down elsewhere. How you felt, what you were doing, who else was there—those are the meat of the story.

Use your words, not your English teacher’s.
That’s right, throw out grammar and write the way you would talk. If it helps, record your thoughts on tape and then transcribe them. This will capture your personality, the vernacular of the time, and will ensure you’re telling stories along the way.

Think about the behind-the-scenes moments of your favorite photos.
Anyone can look at your wedding photo and see that you were a glowing bride. But what was a sweet moment from the day? Or something that went wrong? What did your dad whisper in your ear as he walked you down the aisle? These are the moments that make your story yours alone.

Build the characters.
The best books, TV shows, and, yes, memoirs are packed with personality. Just a couple sentences about each important person will help bring that person back to life years later.

Include timely, cultural references.
Whether you’re passionate about music, politics, entertainment, or anything else, be sure to make reference to how those play into your life at different stages. What song do you hear that takes you back to that very moment? What shift in policy or culture impacted your ability to do something new?

Keep adding to it.
Your story is just beginning. As you experience defining or meaningful moments, add them. Even throw in bullet points along the way if that’s easier. It will be a wonderful glimpse into your life for centuries to come.

Would you write a memoir? Or ask an elderly family member to do it as a baby gift? How are you preserving your memories for your children and future generations?

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