How to Write a Memoir

Penning your life story can be daunting. But writing your memoir is worth it—for you and your potential readers. Here’s how to get started.

How to start a memoir - social imageMy Ocean Production /

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 RCMP 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 Portuguese-Canadian writer living in Vancouver. She 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 your project by jotting down your reasons for writing your story. You could summarize 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.

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,” summarizes 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.

How to start a memoir - woman's face on pagesRachel Wada

Write What You Want

In every life, there is light and shadow, joy and grief. If you are hesitant to write your memoir because you have difficult stories that might hurt others, there is a solution. First, “You don’t have to write about everything,” says Cabral. “It’s okay to have secrets that go with you to the grave.”

Simply knowing you have the freedom to not go to the darkest of places in your writing can lift you over those psychological hurdles of hesitation. However, writing often takes on a life of its own. If you find yourself standing outside a door you had marked as “Do Not Enter,” consider Cabral’s advice: “Write about the hard things as if the person you are writing about is reading it. Be as kind as you can. Leave them with dignity.”

If you’re writing for your eyes only, as a kind of personal therapy, then you may be purposely opening doors and exploring what’s on the other side. That’s okay, too. You are creating a treasure for yourself, and that can be very healthy. Besides, whether the writing is for you or for others, you can always hit the delete button or visit the paper shredder later, if you wish. For now, just get it down.

Don’t Second Guess

Avoid letting worries over style or structure stop you from writing. If you care enough about grammar, you can ask someone you trust to read it over later on, or even hire a freelance editor if you’re really fretting over verb tenses. Remember, perfection in writing is not your goal.

Writers also might hesitate to share stories because they fear they are boring.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh no, that wouldn’t be interesting to anyone but me,’” says Cabral. But our life stories are of interest to others, whether they feel ordinary to us or if they really are extraordinary. They remind us we are all in this together.

Writer Pauline Dakin, author of the award-winning 2017 memoir Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood, was surprised how much the unusual story of her childhood on the run connected with readers. She’s since heard from hundreds. “They often begin by saying, ‘My family wasn’t nearly as crazy as yours, but…,’” she says. “They are relieved to hear my story. It makes them feel they are not alone.”

We are all far more interesting than we know, she adds. It’s just a matter of believing we have a story to tell.

Now that you’ve got these tips on how to start a memoir under your belt, discover the secret to setting boundaries in a relationship.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada