How to start a memoir
My Story by Russell Durling is my 85-year-old father’s account of the highlights of his life. He is writing and editing it, by hand, in several notepads I gave him as a Christmas gift to encourage the memoir project he had talked about for years.
In it, my dad shares stories of summer jobs when he was a teenager, breaking up log jams on the Saint John River near his hometown of Meductic, New Brunswick. He’d move from log to floating log to reach shore again safely – and he loved every minute of this adventure, even when he’d land in the water.
Reading an early draft, I learned new details of his history, like how when they were children, his cousin Clara had a pet crow. He also wrote about lessons learned from his Royal Canadian Mounted Police career, which was spent mostly in Nova Scotia, and shared insights about how to retire well. Pro tip from my father: to add a decade to your life, ditch the city (if you can).
This memoir will be a treasure for our family, and I’m glad my father was finally able to start writing it, after spending a long time talking about wanting to. And I get it. Writing your life story can feel like a daunting project. But it’s worth it, both to the writer and their potential readers. If you’re having a hard time putting pen to paper, here’s advice on how to start a memoir.
First, ask yourself why you’re writing a memoir
Esmeralda Cabral is a writer who works with people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves writers through her workshop, Writing Your Life. Often, she helps people create written treasures for their families, and sometimes they’re writing just for themselves. To her, and those she teaches, memoir writing can be a way of remembering and reflecting on experiences both positive and negative.
“There is a clarity that comes when you put something down on paper,” says Cabral. “Remembering and writing helps us make sense of things. If you don’t write it down or tell it, it’s lost. And that’s a shame.”
Begin by jotting down your reasons for writing your story. You could summarise those reasons on a Post-It and stick it on your fridge as an encouraging reminder to stay motivated. After all, there are many good reasons to write: to remember and reflect on your past, to capture your adventures, to share life lessons with family and friends, or maybe even to be published. Consider sharing your plan with a friend or family member who can check in and cheer your progress.
If you need some extra help getting started, check out these 15 gripping memoirs by women who overcame the impossible.
Where to start
You don’t have to start a memoir with day one. In fact, as much as your future readers love you, they may find that approach less than gripping.
In her workshops, Cabral helps people to start a memoir by using a photo that is meaningful to them. She asks them to imagine sitting down with a good friend and telling them the story behind it. Or begin your writing with an event or story you are particularly interested in sharing. What grabs you as a big moment? Select a vivid memory and start there.
“Plug your nose and jump in and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can,” summarises New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Maybe start with a birthday party you remember, or your first-grade classroom. Try writing at the same time every day, so you can build a routine that will keep you putting words on the page.