Ten Questions On Memoir Writing

(The following interview appeared in the Nov. 19, 2010, Oral History Education blog

1. How did you get started in your profession of memoir writing?

I started writing autobiography-based fiction. Some of these have won literary awards, and, while I like that, I feel the most satisfaction from helping readers who are stimulated to tell their own stories after reading my work. This happened in 1988 when my first collection of short fiction, What Became of Them, came out.

After I had read for a group of senior citizens, I was overwhelmed by their eagerness to share their stories with me and each other. That’s how I began helping people to write their memoirs.

I developed the Turning Memories Into Memoirs® writing workshops and tele-classes to help people develop their memoir writing skills in an atmosphere that supports self-exploration and group sharing. I later wrote Turning Memories Into Memoirs as a guidebook for those who wish to fulfill their desire to write a memoir.

2. Why would someone want to write a memoir?

First of all, telling a story is a pleasure—it’s a natural way to communicate. (Just listen for the storytellers next time you’re at a party or gathering.)

There is also a human compulsion to record the past, to preserve what’s changing and to celebrate accomplishment.

Finally, many of us feel a need to find meaning in life. Writing is a vehicle for exploring the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of life and making sense of it. Lifewriting can be very growthful. Some begin the process knowing this, others discover it while writing their memoir.

3. What are the first steps one should take to get started writing a memoir?

Step One is to make a memory list—a list of all the relationships and events in your life. It might have hundreds of items: births, deaths, illnesses, friends, failures, successes, anything and everything—so take your time. You’ll refer back to this list repeatedly.

Step Two is to choose the ten most important items on your list—items without which your life could not have been the same. Set the realistic goal of writing three-to-five-page stories around each core item. Later on, short pieces can be expanded and combined. Your manuscript will add up page by page, story by story. Don’t worry about chronological order as you write. Start anywhere that interests you.

If you have difficult memories, give yourself permission to take it slowly. Writing happy memories first may give you the confidence to tackle the painful ones.

I do offer a free e-book on creating and utilizing a memory list on my website at http://turningmemories.com/memorylist.html.

4. What resources and tools are useful to someone writing a memoir?

An open and reflective mind is one of the most important tools a memoirist can have.

Interviews, books, and the Internet can all offer valuable information when putting one’s life into a larger context. Information gleaned from these sources can help the writer remember and evaluate additional details.

A good dictionary and basic writing skills are, of course, ever useful.

5. How can memoir writers improve the recall of their memories so that they can write with more detail?

As mentioned above, the memory list is the first tool a memoir writer should make use of for details and memories, but there are certainly a variety of other methods. Here are a few activities that really work.

* Analyze your family photos, historical photos, paintings of the time.

* Refer to journals, letters, yearbooks, newspapers.

* Make lists about yourself and family members: favorite foods, sayings, pastimes, songs, etc. (be serious or frivolous).

* Talk about the past with people who were there.

* Write time capsule descriptions of yourself or others.

* Read a book or see a film set in the same era.

Visualization is also an effective technique. Try to visualize the scene you are describing: Where were you sitting, standing, etc? Who was with you? What were they wearing? What was the weather like? This method can really lead to some very detailed writing!

6. How do you deal with the issues of false memory or “doctored” memories?

There are people who have suffered a traumatic experience and have no recollection of it for years, as well as people who wish to manipulate the reader’s opinion or settle a score through the written word. These are not issues with which I have had to contend with in my career.

That having been said, the memory can be self-serving or misleading. Diaries, newspapers, and interviews can either corroborate or correct your memory.

Drawing on other sources also widens your perspective and gives your stories authentic detail. Researching a period may uncover clues to the puzzles of your past: you can learn a lot by relating family history to world events you were unaware of at the time.

7. What are the obstacles you see that prevent people from writing their memoirs or not completing them? What do you recommend to overcome those obstacles?

Indiscipline is one of the greatest obstacles that can face a memoir writer. Writing regularly is critical to success. Irregular or sporadic writing prevents the memoirist from getting into a flow and will greatly prolong the writing process.

I recommend that every memoir writer set a regular time to write every week. This will increase productivity and help get the writer into a rhythm.

A lack of broad knowledge about the period of time being covered by a memoir can be a serious handicap, but this can be corrected through research.

Pain can also be an impediment to completing a memoir, and I deal with this issue more in the next question.

One major issue that affects a number of memoirists is a lack of confidence in their authority to tell their story. Some writers do not feel that they are entitled to give their version of events, or feel that it is someone else’s responsibility. Writers who have this issue need to realize that they have a right to present their own perspective and story. In much of my memoir work, just giving troubled writers the reassurance that they do have the right to tell their story helps a great deal with this problem.

8. How would you recommend someone writing a memoir should handle subjects which are painful to them, or to someone else who may read it?

Painful memories do surface in lifewriting; writing about an experience may relieve that pain. I suggest you approach your pain by writing around it. Like peeling an onion, eventually you’ll arrive at the center of your grief— and you’ll often find insight and acceptance, too. The process is difficult, but it can be healing.

It’s also perfectly okay to decide not to write about difficult experiences— at least for a time. In my memoir work, I have repeatedly seen writers discover that it takes more energy to avoid a memory than to write about it.

9. Have there been any memoirs you have assisted with that have shaped the way you perceive the world or the way you go about your craft?

I certainly have been deeply moved by several memoirs of my clients. One, a World War II pilot, had many exciting stories, and another, a woman who lost a daughter to drug use, wrote very emotionally moving memoirs.

My coaching, editing, and co-authoring has indeed been shaped by the stories of my clients in several ways. I have become more adept at asking the right questions and making the right comments to stimulate the writing, recall, and interpretation of a story. I have become more sensitive to unspoken issues my clients may have and know better how to approach and deal with these matters.

10. How are memoirs used by families—and on a larger scale—by libraries, museums, or other academic institution today?

Memoirs can be used by families in a number of ways. They offer a record of events and people that have been important or meaningful for the family, can be used to address family issues, and can celebrate or commemorate a special family event.

Many local or state libraries have collections of regional memoirs. These are a rich source of local history and offer the personal element oftentimes lacking in broad-scoped generic texts. Historians generally value the personal perspective and insights offered by memoirs when conducting their research.


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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