Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wayne Groner: Simplify Writing Your Memoir with Three Best Practices

You are in for a treat today: practical info and inspiration for writing your memoir from author and personal historian, Wayne Groner. Be sure to check out Wayne’s new book, A Guide to Writing Your Memoir or Life Story: Tips, Tools, Methods, and Examples.

Simplify Writing Your Memoir with Three Best Practices

The number one roadblock to writing memoir is where to start. Rolling in our heads are many wonderful stories involving a great number of learning and growing experiences. This is especially true as we consider God’s blessings and how he changed our lives. We want to get it all out and don’t know where or how to begin. The best way to begin is to simplify.

First, decide to write a memoir, not an autobiography or family history. This keeps you from wandering in uncontrolled directions and it defines your parameters for research.

Time periods are what distinguish the three story types.

Autobiography is from birth to today. It is an autobiography if you write about yourself and a biography if you write about someone else. Celebrities and politicians often are subjects of biographies and autobiographies.

Family history uses genealogy, photos, and stories to tell about your ancestors. You may start several centuries ago and stop at any date you choose.

Memoir covers a short time period or series of related events such as childhood, teenage years, military service, trauma, spiritual journey, and so forth. Your stories tell key experiences that influenced you and how you changed, such as Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. 

Books of the Bible are mixtures of the three types. Biblical authors didn’t write to display types, but to show God’s compassion to humans with stories told through laws, history, wisdom, prophecies, hymns, poems, and letters.

Second, define your motivation for writing. All creatures feel the need to be connected, whether honeybees or humans, wolves or whales, amoebae or anteaters; whether by village, tribe, pack, household, school, work, neighborhood, city, county, state, country, religion, or politics.

What are your reasons for wanting to be connected?
Do you want to become famous?
Make loads of money?
Find personal enjoyment?
Honor family legacy?
Give back to the community?
Help your children and grandchildren
understand and appreciate their heritage?
Find personal or family healing?
Share your journey of faith to inspire others?
Set the record straight?

Marriage and family therapist, author, and memoir writing instructor Linda Joy Myers puts it this way:

The most important ingredient in writing a memoir
is motivation
a passionate reason to get the story on the page,
a ‘fire in the belly’ feeling
that what you have to tell is important
and significant.”

Aspiring Olympians become motivated by watching winning Olympians and noting their times or scores. The Olympians-to-be wrote the winning times on a note attached to a refrigerator door or cover of a spiral notebook. It’s okay to have more than one motivation, but more than three muddies your focus and can be overwhelming. Think of how your story not only will make a difference in your life but in the lives of those who read it.

Third, focus on key events by making a list of memory joggers, brief notes to help you remember experiences. Memory joggers speed up your writing process and give you freedom to write.

Your goal in listing memory joggers is not perfection in details; it is to remember that events occurred. 

You could outline your entire life story using memory joggers, similar to the approach Linda Spence takes in Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History. She divides a life into nine major segments: beginnings and childhood, adolescence, early adult years, marriage, being a parent, middle adult years, being a grandparent, later adult years, and reflections. In each segment, she lists questions to help you remember what might have been going on in your life. She has more than 400 questions throughout the book.

Start your list of memory joggers by preparing nine pieces of paper or computer files, each with one of Spence’s major life segments at the top, or whatever segments fit your memoir’s purpose.

In each segment, write a brief line or two about activities you were involved in during that time. Your list could include a handful of activities or dozens. Don’t write complete sentences or paragraphs and don’t try to write a story; just bits of information you will refer to later when writing your stories.

Here are a few prompts to get your juices flowing:

  • Old family photographs
  • School yearbooks
  • Travel photos
  • What you were doing when big news events occurred
  • Your first car wreck
  • When you learned to ride a bicycle
  • Letters from family and friends
  • Family Bible
  • Newspaper on the day you were born or other dates you select; search your browser for vendors
  • Family heirlooms: jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, dishes, and so forth
  • Names of family members and friends
  • Persons who most influenced you, for better or worse
  • Those who guided your faith journey
  • Firsts: first date, first driving lesson, first job, first child, and so forth
  • Accomplishments and failures with lessons learned
  • Saddest and happiest events
  • Serious illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Treasured friendships
  • Friendships gone bad

With these three toolsstory type, motivation, and memory joggers–you will be well on your way to a satisfying and successful journey of writing the memoir you want.

Personal historian Wayne E. Groner is author of A Guide to Writing Your Memoir or Life Story: Tips, Tools, Methods, and Examples, and other nonfiction books. He is president of Springfield Writers’ Guild (Missouri). Follow him at and on Facebook.

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