EGWG Writing Class-10


Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here. unknown

Three Questions to Ask When Considering a Memoir 

  1. What’s your point? We all have our unique stories, so why would anyone want to read yours? Will your story be interesting? Would it reveal things you’ve kept hidden that others should or might want to know? Could your life be a lesson to others? Why do you want to write a memoir?
  2. Are you writing to blame a catastrophe in your life on another person? The story you write is your version of the truth, but there are two sides to every argument, just as there are reasons behind everyone’s actions. Be truthful and tell how the event changed your life but consider both sides and think about libel and slander charges someone could bring against you.
  3. Who are you writing for, and how will it affect them when they reach the end? Will your life experiences satisfy them, or help them understand you better?

Writing Your history

Now that you’ve taken on the task, are you writing a memoir or an autobiography? What’s the difference?

The definition of a memoir is an official note or report, a memorandum, or a narrative composed from personal experience. It is a factual account of one or more different encounters in one person’s life, and it is a sub-genre of autobiography. An autobiography spans the author’s experiences from birth until they finish drafting the book.

Imagine opening a dust-covered box in your grandparent’s attic or garage and finding a journal written by your grandmother or someone generations earlier. If not a journal, perhaps you’d find a cache of letters or postcards from long-gone family members.

How thrilled would you be?

We are no longer forced to use pen and paper or a typewriter to draft our stories. We live in the electronic age and use e-mail, text messages, and social media to communicate with others. How then, can we leave a legacy of letters, journals, diaries, and preserve our memories for future generations?

There are four ways to create a contemporary legacy.

  1. Family seasonal newsletters.
  2. Saving e-mails in a folder.
  3. Letters to families and friends.
  4. Creating a written story.

The first three choices rely on the recipients keeping a copy—forever, and that’s a dubious proposal.

When I first lived overseas, I made copies of the letters I wrote and stapled on the answering letters. While going through a box of stuff to toss, forty years later, I found a folder of those letters. Reading over them brought back memories I’d forgotten. That was my form of journaling.

In this class, we’ll delve into drafting your story, your memoir. But where do I start, you might ask.

Begin by making a list of the most memorable moments of the period of your life you’re going to write about. Some events may have an emotional impact that will resonate with a reader, be exciting, and tell of dangerous times, but all of them should be interesting. Don’t forget the small moments you treasure. Don’t overthink or second guess yourself.

My list would begin: Childhood

  1. Car versus telephone pole.
  2. Where I slept.
  3. Victory garden and green tomatoes.
  4. Eva, spinach, and tinfoil.
  5. The union hall.

Your list doesn’t need to make sense to anyone but you. Once you’ve finished, put the  memory prompts in chronological order. In the example above, I would switch number 4 with number 2. Next, separate the items into the major periods of your life. When finished, this catalog of events will be your beginning outline. Don’t worry if it’s short because memories beget memories, and the list will change and grow as you progress in your writing. For example, when I listed the victory garden and green tomatoes, it reminded me of the rhubarb patch and rationed sugar during the early 1940s.

Next, choose one memory on the list and write about it. Remember, this is a memoir, and you do not have to document every single moment of your life. Concentrate on what you feel is interesting, and on events that made an impact or transformed your life for the better, or for the worse. When you finish one item, pick another, and write about it. 

Ten Steps to Begin Your Journey 

  1. Make time for yourself. Set aside a certain amount of time during the day to reflect on your life, and to write.
  2. Create a place to write. You can decide where and how you write, whether by paper and pencil, computer, or a tablet, but make sure you’re comfortable in the space you choose.
  3. Don’t overdo it. You have many years to cover, and it’s not a race, so take your time. If the memory you chose will take a long time to finish, stop, and write more the next day. You don’t have to write in chronological order. You can choose what to write as the mood strikes you and put it in chronological order later.
  4. Interview yourself. Ask the questions you would have loved to ask a grandparent or other family member.
  5. Keep it lively. Your life has spanned many decades, and newsworthy events have happened. How did those events affect you? What was relevant, strange, or entertaining during the period you’re writing about? Adding your reactions and thoughts will add context for the reader and might remind you of other experiences.
  6. Jog your memory. Look through your pictures, cards, letters, yearbooks, and other memorabilia you’ve saved. Memories will come.
  7. Include more than just your stories. Describe your surroundings, where you lived, and the characteristics and funny things about your family and friends. Those things will add more insight into your world and your part in it.
  8. Share your thoughts, ideas, humor, favorite quotes, and jokes. Let the reader get a glimpse of your true self. Tell how you felt about events and the people in your life. It’s all right to show vulnerability.
  9. Many online sites can supply ideas and information to help you create an exciting and unforgettable personal history. Go online and enter “writing a memoir” in your browser, and you’ll have pages of articles to choose from.
  10. Make it fun. There are no fast rules. If you have fun writing your memories, your readers will have fun reading them. Include whatever you want, recipes, song lyrics, poetry, favorite quotations, whatever applies to your story. No matter how you record your memories, they will reflect who you are, and your family will love it—or hate it, depending on your subject.

The Structure of a Memoir 

  1. The order of events should flow in chronological order. However, there will be times when you will want to add your present-day insight to earlier events. An almost chronological structure will allow for complexity instead of a “first this happened, and then that happened” approach. For instance, the first thing I remember is my hand stretched above my head while walking with my aunt. My forehead itched, but every time I tried to scratch it, Auntie would say, “Don’t touch your forehead.” We were going to the doctor’s office to have new stitches from the car wreck put in after I’d scratched them out—again. This event has two time periods, what I felt then, and what I learned later of the car wreck that caused the stitches.
  2. Sectioning parts of your life makes sense because it helps move the reader through the material. You might section off the first part as childhood, and the second part as adulthood. In mine, the first section is past generations, the second part is what I know about my parents, the third part is me through high school, fourth I called adulting 101 and so forth.
  3. Choose a tense, present, or past. One author used past tense during childhood and present tense as an adult. Present tense has the benefit of intimacy, but it’s more work to stay in the correct tense throughout the book. Past tense is familiar, transparent, and more comfortable to write.
  4. Flashbacks are a way to break the chronological timeline, as mentioned in the first example. Flash-forwards would work in the same way.
  5. Don’t give up. Keep writing. Your writing will settle into the perfect structure as you continue writing.
  6. Strive for honesty, but don’t sweat it if you can’t think of someone’s name. If they’re not a relative, does it really matter? If a clown scared you and you can’t remember his name, pick a clown-like name, and go with it, no one is going to care. Fudging a name doesn’t change the integrity of your story. The same holds true for dates, locations, dialogue, etc. If it’s essential to the story, inform the reader you’re guessing or paraphrasing the details and facts in question. Keep in mind, though, that an honest memoir is an unforgettable memoir.

The Form of a Memoir 

  1. Introduction: Begin with a snippet of what your life is like now and why you’re writing the memoir. Mine says I’m writing because my daughter asked me to tell my story. I give a brief explanation that at 70, I learned I was on the autistic spectrum, and my memoir or theme will show how that 69-year-old unknown fact shaped my life.
  2. Memorable Moment: Focus on significant moments in your life. This is where your list comes in. You remember those moments for a reason—what reason? Remember, readers expect honesty.
  3. Structure—Before Event: Set up the scene. Describe the setting, location, and time frame, and show attitudes and feelings before an event. Often that comes through thought, action, and description. Take your reader on an emotional journey and try to create tension and suspense.
  4. Structure—After Event: Show personal growth. How did the event change your beliefs and your life? The hardest part will be your introspection as you study each event to discover how it made you who you are now.
  5. Style and Techniques: Create entertainment. Show the significance of the event through interesting detail, language, and a balance of thought, action, and dialogue. Use observation and insight to discuss your life situations. For example, I remember sitting around the kitchen table at a friend’s house listening to the radio as Sputnik traveled through space, orbiting the earth. I listened to the beeps, coming through the static, and reflected on how the ability to put a manmade object in space could change mankind. Would it be for the better or worse?
  6. Theme: Your memoir should have an idea to tie the events together. Subjects such as addiction, abuse, religion, parenting, travel, dysfunctional family, divorce, and more can be themes. Adam Kay’s ‘This is Going to Hurt’ is based on actual diaries, but the theme is based on being a new doctor. Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ combines falconry and grief. What are you trying to say, what question are you trying to answer, and what lessons have you learned throughout your life? Each story you tell, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, should connect with your theme even if it’s in a roundabout way.
  7. Format: Revise and edit until your memoir is error-free. Make sure it looks good on the page. Remember, single space after a period, question, or exclamation mark. Use the Oxford comma. Editors like it, and it harms nothing, but sometimes, not using that comma before and creates confusion. Consider “The panda eats shoots and leaves.” Without the comma, the little bear comes across as vicious. Are your headings in the same place on all the pages, and are they the same size and uniform throughout the book? Are your margins justified? Do you want a space after each paragraph or no space? Will you have a table of contents for your chapter headings? You may say you don’t want to publish it, so it doesn’t need to look professional, but your family or anyone who reads it will appreciate a well-written book, and they will think better of you.

The Foundations of a Memoir

Every journalist will tell you a written article or book must include who, what, where, when, why, and how. Why is your theme, reflection, and purpose in writing. How is your perspective on what happened in your life. 

  1. In a memoir, you are the who, the main character, and it’s all your point of view. Your writing goal is to come across as someone the reader would want to know, someone they can identify with, or someone they can understand.
  2. Make your scenes, the what, where, and when, vivid with strong visual imagery that lets the reader step into the event. Powerful scenes are memorable and lasting. Use dialogue and actions to show the situations.
  3. Find a way to affect the reader’s emotions. Every story or event worth writing will have emotional tension. That’s not always romantic or sexual tension, but how you felt. Were you full of joy, fear, anger, or hatred? Show your vulnerability by expressing your inner feelings.
  4. Increase the drama towards the climax of the event. Ramped up the conflict, show how the stakes were raised. Make the reader know what you could have lost.
  5. Your memoir should have a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t have to be happy ever after—with all problems solved, but it will need a sense of closure.

A brief refresher on show, don’t tell.

  1. Use fewer telling words like “I heard,” “I felt,” “I saw,” to draw readers closer.
  2. Don’t explain emotions with any of the above words; instead, give physical reactions. “I was afraid” becomes “my heart pounded in my chest, and I froze as he walked toward me.”
  3. Describe body language in greater detail. “He watched me” becomes “he stood across the room, his hands in his back pockets, and stared at me.”
  4. Use stronger verbs that match the emotions. “Fell to the floor” becomes “crashed to the floor.” “I ran toward him” becomes “I rushed (hurried, flew, speed-walked) toward him.”

Showing and not telling can be tricky, but practice will help, and a handy thesaurus will give you other more exciting words to use. 


Memory is not a factual recording device. Have you ever discussed an event with someone who was there? If you have, you’re aware that recall is subject to error, bias, and suggestion. Use memory triggers by looking at pictures, postcards, and letters. Listen to music or watch a video on YouTube of something from that era to bring back memories. I’m taken back to the darkest period in my life when I hear the song The Sound of Silence. Are you thinking of that night at the bar? Have a drink to get in the mood. If you live in the same area you’re describing, visit the site. Use whatever triggers you can to flesh out your memories.

Be a critical thinker. As you write, question what you’re saying. Is it plausible and factual? Does it match what you know for sure about where you lived, who you knew, and what your life was like then? If possible, talk to friends or relatives who knew you when. If no one agrees on what you think happened, and you can’t research it, well, you are the author. Make a note that there are differing accounts, and then write the one that is comfortable for you.

There will come a time when triggers fail, and memory stays fuzzy. You’ll have questions that need answering. One of my questions was, how many miles between 37th and N Street in Vancouver, Washington, and where Union Avenue in Portland, Oregon, begins? To find that information, I went online and entered mileage calculator. I’ve used several of the listed programs to find the actual road and air mileage from one place to another in my stories and my memoir.

Before you get on the internet or call the oldest member of your family, make a list of what you want to know. It will help you stay focused on the answers to your questions and prevent getting lost in interesting but useless information. Examples of a few answers I’d want are, information on the old Carnegie library in Aberdeen, Washington, the names of grade schools in Aberdeen, the air miles between Tripoli, Libya, and the island of Malta, and the air miles between Medan, Sumatra, and Singapore. The internet is a fantastic place, but it’s a place that will lure you down many rabbit-holes, so keep your list handy and stay focused.

After my mother died, my go-to person for family information was my aunt Lucille, Mom’s sister. She enjoyed reminiscing about the family, and I was more than willing to listen. If you have an older relative, talk to them before they pass on. Ask a simple question and then sit back and listen as one topic bleeds into another, and you hear answers to questions you didn’t know to ask.

If you’re looking for information on people who have died, enter genealogy into your browser, and you will have a wide choice of programs to choose from. If anyone is researching your person or their family, your search may yield the information you need. Even if you’re the only one looking, you’ll have an excellent chance of finding burial sites, Social Security birth and death dates, and census reports from the 1800s to 1940. Hopefully, the census reports will soon include 1950, as well. 

Mistakes While Writing a Memoir

  1. Over explaining an idea or event that is already clear.
  2. Repeating words or phrases.
  3. Do the stories start and end in the right place?
  4. Do certain events come across as unbelievable?
  5. You may have firm beliefs, but don’t be preachy or condescending.
  6. Not editing. Revision and editing are vital. No one writes a perfect first draft.
  7. Don’t libel or slander anyone. Try to avoid a potential lawsuit.
  8. Don’t tell the same story twice. Tell the details once and reference the event later.
  9. Keep it simple. Don’t use big words when smaller ones will work just as well.
  10. Don’t start with “I was born—” you’re writing a memoir, not an autobiography.

An Exercise

At home, write a few paragraphs about one of the subjects below. Be more honest than you’re comfortable with.

  • A time of deep embarrassment.
  • Why you regret something you did.
  • The saddest moment in your life.
  • A secret you’re afraid to talk about.

Read what you write out loud. Listen to how it sounds. What do you feel when reading a difficult moment?

What are you afraid of? Is it being judged or fear of telling anyone? Write those feelings down.

Don’t worry. This exercise is only for you. No one will see your paragraphs unless you choose to show them. 

And Finally… 

Note: A memoir is unique because the viewpoint is totally yours—created from your flesh and blood—not a made-up character. Remember, use your 5 senses and the 6th sense if it comes into play. Connect with your readers by giving them living, breathing, and sensory experiences. You’ve sat through the classes on writing fiction, and maybe you took notes. Now, go and write the memoir you’d want to read, using the elements of fiction to bring your nonfiction story to life.


Penny Clark