How to Write Your Memoir

Thinking about your legacy? Wondering how to achieve a small measure of immortality? Write a memoir.

By Joe Kita

5 Tips for Starting Your Memoir
1. Write memoir, not autobiography.
An autobiography is the story of an entire life, but a memoir is just one story from that life. You can only ever write one autobiography, but you can write countless memoirs. It’s a much less intimidating project if you view it that way.

2. Diagram your life.
Some people have one burning story to tell. Others find it difficult to immediately pinpoint anything. Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, recommends diagramming your life to gain perspective. To do this, get in a retrospective mood, enlist the help of a friend or spouse (martinis also work), and plot your life’s six most significant moments. When you do it thoughtfully and honestly, there will usually be one pivotal event that stands out as particularly intriguing and/or meaningful. If there isn’t, don’t worry. There are many different ways to diagram a life. Try dividing yours by critical choices, influential people, conflicts, beliefs, lessons, even mistakes. Experiment until you find the one story that wants to be told, the one experience that really fashioned you.

3. Don’t begin at the beginning.
Don’t tell your story chronologically. That’s too predictable. Think of your favorite books. Most don’t start at the beginning. Instead they rivet you with instant action and intrigue. A good beginning is a tease. It gives readers just enough action to hook them without divulging the outcome. Then it flashes back to the real chronological beginning and fills in the background.

4. Use all your senses.
The best writers create vivid new worlds for readers to inhabit. Yet most budding memoirists produce first drafts that are flat. To transport readers (and yourself), write vividly. This is done through detail, by using all your senses to fully re-create a moment in time. You can teach yourself to do this. The next time you’re waiting in a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or even in traffic, notice the various sights, sounds, smells, and textures. It’s what writers do, both in reality and in their stories.

5. Build your writing muscle.
You have a writing muscle, and it needs exercise to perform well. Set a daily goal of writing 200, 500, or even 1,000 words. Set aside a regular time, like early morning, and be disciplined. Don’t worry about making what you write perfect. Just focus on getting the story out. (There will be plenty of time for polishing later.) Above all, relax. Memoir is the easiest type of writing to do well. You’ve already done the research and are intimately familiar with every character. Now you just need to tell it.

A Love Story
By Muriel Hartranft

Saturday football games were a big event during the fall months. The last game of the season was always Indiana-Purdue. As I got to know Art better, I told him about Alberto but said I hadn’t dated him for about a year. Well, much to my surprise, Alberto called out of the blue and asked me to go with him to the game. And still having a soft spot in my heart for him, I accepted. When I told Art, he was one unhappy young man. He essentially said that if I went out with Alberto, then he was out of here.

When the Saturday for Indiana-Purdue finally arrived, Alberto came to take me to the game and Art was standing in the background. Alberto walked up to me and gave me a big hug, then said, “Come on, let’s get going.”

But I hesitated and said, “Sorry, I have made other plans.”

And with that statement, I chose to make my life with Arthur E. Rowe.

–Muriel Hartranft, 90, and Art were married for 28 years. She will self-publish her memoir later this year. This and the other memoirs excerpted here are by former students of author Joe Kita’s.

Our Dog Toni
By Westra Ingalls

Toni’s favorite game was golf. Every day about 5 o’clock, Charles would put a tee in the ground and Toni would put the golf ball on the tee. If it fell off, he would keep putting it on until he got it right. His tail never stopped wagging. Charles hit the ball with an iron, and Toni would chase after it when it left the tee. One time Charles didn’t gauge it right, and he hit Toni across the side of his mouth with the iron. Toni dropped and passed out. Charles got excited and yelled, “Westra, I’ve killed Toni!”I grabbed the hose and turned on the water. The cold water brought him out of it, and he jumped up and teed the ball like nothing had happened. We were amazed.

–Westra Ingalls, 93, typed all 24 chapters of her 100-page memoir, printed it at Staples, and distributed copies to her family. “They all told me they couldn’t put it down,”she said.

If the Boot Fits, Wear It
By Trish Sinclair

It was the first snow of winter—an exciting day for every child but not for most teachers. Up until now, I had been able to dress myself for recess, but today I would need some help. Miss Finlayson, my kindergarten teacher at Princess Elizabeth School near Hamilton, Ontario, had been through first snow days many times in her long career, but I think she may still remember this one.

I managed to get into my itchy wool snow pants. But I struggled with my jacket because it didn’t fit well. It was a hand-me-down from my brother, and it made me wonder why I had to wear his ugly clothes. At least my hat and matching scarf were mine, and they were quite pretty. Finally it was time to have Miss Finlayson help me with my boots. In her calm, motherly voice she said, “By the end of winter, you will all be able to put on your own boots.” I didn’t realize at the time that this was more a statement of hope than of confidence.

I handed her my boots and stuck out my foot. Like most children, I expected the adult to do all the work. After much wiggling and pushing, she managed to get the first one into place and then, with an audible sigh, worked the second one on too.

I announced, “They’re on the wrong feet.” With the grace that only experience can bring, she struggled to get the boots off and went through the joyless task of putting them on again. Then I said, “These aren’t my boots, you know.” As she pulled the offending boots from my feet, she still managed to look both helpful and interested. Once they were off, I said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mother makes me wear them, and I hate them!” Somehow, from long years of practice, she managed to act as though I wasn’t an annoying little girl. She pushed and shoved, less gently this time, and the boots were returned to their proper place on my feet. With a great sigh of relief, seeing the end of her struggle with me, she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?”

I looked into her eyes and said, “I didn’t want to lose them, so I stuffed them into the toes of my boots.”

–Canadian Trish Sinclair recently self-published a collection of her life stories.