Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How do you start? Where do you start?


Are you a beginning memoir-writer? Are you puzzled about how to start? Where to start?

Lisa Tener recently interviewed Richard Hoffman, award-winning author and professor at Emerson College.

She asked Richard’s advice for beginning memoir-writers, specifically how and where to start.

His reply:

“Wherever you can! Think of a spiderweb. You can hook that first thread anywhere it will hold. The important thing is to not think in linear terms at all when you’re writing. Write scenes. Write pages of reflection. Write what’s available to you to write today. Memory’s mercurial; if something offers itself to be explored, explore it while it’s ‘live’. If you shoo it away because you’re convinced that today you’re going to work on, say, Chapter 7, it might not come back!

“Write modularly in the order that presents itself to you.… A book is read from the upper left-hand corner of page one to the lower right-hand corner of the last page — but that is not how it is written! At least not in my experience. Composition happens only later, when you’ve turned over every rock and shaken every tree. The next stage, fashioning a story, a narrative, from the parts comes pretty late in the process.” (Richard Hoffman, from Lisa Tener’s Writing Blog at

Many thanks, Lisa and Richard, for your helpful words.

Like I said last May in One little step at a time,* please be underwhelmed at the task of writing a book. In fact, avoid thinking “book.” Instead, concentrate on individual short stories.

For the next several months, take easy little steps: I suggest you review the definition of memoir* and write a few accounts, three to six pages each. That’s do-able, right? These rough drafts will eventually be chapters in your finished memoir.

Start with easy topics. Remember: You’ll learn the craft of memoir more easily if you begin with straightforward events.

I’ve seen too many beginners tackle a traumatic story, only to have their still-raw emotions sidetrack them. Inevitably, discouragement leads them to abandon that story and give up on writing their other stories, too. Don’t let that happen to you! 

Instead, start with less painful events—how God showed His love by bringing just the right doctor into your life, for example. Perhaps you saw God’s power demonstrated when He kept you from serious injury in a car accident. Maybe He gave you a glimpse of His beauty through a sunset or snowcapped mountain or butterfly.

Write your stories—not because of who you are,
but because of who God is.*

Write your stories as an act of worship.*

If a particular vignette is refusing to come to life, set it aside and work on something else. That thorny story might blossom another day.

Embrace what Richard said: Write what you can today.

Happy writing! 

Richard Hoffman authored the celebrated memoir Half the House; the short story collection Interference and Other Stories; and three poetry collections: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road; he’s the winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; and most recently, Emblem. He teaches at Emerson College and currently serves as chair of PEN New England.

*Related posts:
Your memoir: one little step at a time

What is a memoir

Your stories: an act of worship



  1. Excellent practical advice,Linda. I really like the idea of comparing the writing to a spider web "oh what tangled webs we weave"! Thanks for another great post with all the wonderful links.


  2. This is great advice. I wrote about my 2nd memory for my memoirs the week after I wrote the first one. I'm afraid I haven't had much time to get back to writing but at least I've made a start. I will continue to do as this post says and figure out later how it comes together :-) Blessings.

  3. Kathy, you're right: "Oh, what tangled webs we weave!" I hadn't thought of that when I wrote this post, but it's appropriate for both memoir writing and the realities of our lives. Thank God for being our Untangler!

    Joyful, I was wondering if you'd been able to write more. I know you have had some health issues, but bless your heart, you're keeping at it! Good for you!

    Thanks to both of you friends for stopping by.


  4. Linda,
    Thank you. I've been stuck for months. I think you've cleared my logjam.

    Bless you for that! And all you are....

  5. I daily watch your website because it helps me in my many works and it is very beneficial for me because it gives the work a professional touch that is really an amazing thing.
    printed coasters

  6. This is so helpful! My approach to memoir has been to force the linear progression. Talk about corking the creativity. Writing reflections and focusing on writing what is available to write today is so much more liberating. Thanks again, Linda!

  7. Hi, De, glad you found this liberating!

    You might enjoy reading Kathleen's blog, Memories and Memoirs (link in the right column) in which a guest blogger wrote that we can write our vignettes in any order, and peace them together later much like quilting is done: "... we will gather the sections that one day will be quilted together into a more finished work of art." Here's a link:

  8. Linda, great and helpful post! I've tucked it into Evernote for re-reading again and again. :)

    1. Sherrey, I'm so pleased you found this helpful! I pray each day for God to help me write info that will be helpful for others.

      Keep writing. I want to read your memoir some day. :)


  9. Thanks so much for this, Linda. This is exactly what i need to do - regularly. And commit to it. Great kick-it-into-gear help here!

    1. I'm pleased this has been helpful for you, Diana. When I saw it, I knew others would find it helpful and that I wanted to share it.

      You are such a prolific writer, Diana. I don't know how you do it! You are amazing!