Since 2016, I’ve been teaching memoir writing as a therapeutic process for healing trauma and improving disease outcomes- “Memoir As Medicine,” as my first writing teacher Nancy Aronie calls it. Morning pages or extemporaneous journal writing can be therapeutic enough for some people, but what if you want to try to write a complete narrative of parts of your life story?
The first hurdle for many memoir writers is getting started. You may look at thirty years of discombobulated journals or sixty years of fragmented memories in your mind and wonder where to begin. We dive into this process in greater detail in our next Memoir As Medicine class, and this time we’re bringing in my editor from Sounds True Jennifer Brown, who has edited hundreds of memoirs and is now writing a memoir of her own.
To get you started, here are a few tips:
1. Start anywhere!
You can figure out the order of how you structure your memoir later. As Anne Lamott says, you start writing your “shitty first draft!” You can organize and structure once you put pen to page.
2. Try writing your six word memoir.
See if you can boil down the essence of the story you want to tell into six words. It can be hard for us to get to essence of a long life, but sometimes less is more. Mine might be “Risking love again. Likely to fail.” What’s yours?
3. Use a captivating first sentence.
Craft a first sentence that grabs the reader’s attention and piques their curiosity. It can be a thought-provoking statement, a surprising fact, or an intriguing question that immediately makes the reader want to know more.
Here are a few good ones from American novels.
“Nobody died that year.”
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
“I get the willies when I see closed doors.”
“There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.”
“This story at no point becomes my own.”
Here are a few great opening lines from memoirs.
“I am an invisible man.”
“The phone shouldn’t ring this early.”
“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”
“At the age of three my grand aunt proclaimed her independence by categorically refusing to having her feet bound, resolutely tearing off the bandages as fast as they were applied.”
“Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.”
“Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.”
4. Lead with the climax of your story.
What was the turning point of your life story, the one that broke your life into “before X” and “after X?” Start there. Jump right into the middle of the action. Rather than starting from the very beginning, consider plunging readers directly into the middle of a pivotal moment or conflict. Then you can flashback in the next chapter to earlier parts of your story, only now the reader has some foreshadowing of what’s to come. Not that you should be thinking this early on about your readers, but if you do decide to share it, this approach can create immediate intrigue and make readers curious about the events that led up to that point. This is the tactic I used in my memoir Sacred Medicine.
5. Follow the hero’s or heroine’s journey arc of your life.
Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Hero’s Journey” has inspired countless action movies and fairy tales, like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Wizard of Oz. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is a wonderful resource for memoir writers or fiction writers looking for help telling a captivating story. I used the hero’s (and then the heroine’s) journey as the format for my memoir The Anatomy of a Calling.
6. Start with what your nervous system can handle, then stretch your window of tolerance.
If you’re writing for medicinal purposes, start where you feel excited about starting. Write one memory at a time in the order they arrive in your consciousness. As a therapeutic process, you may not want to jump right to the most emotionally charged moments. Let your psyche reveal your story as it’s ready to do so.
7. Use humor or a captivating anecdote.
If appropriate for your memoir, start with a humorous, self deprecating, memorable, surprising, or captivating anecdote that lets your show off your writing chops, showcases your unique voice, and draws readers in with a sense of intrigue or amusement or entertainment.
8. Begin with a question or a challenge.
Pose a thought-provoking question or present a challenge that you’ll explore throughout your memoir. This can create a sense of curiosity and anticipation for readers, compelling them to keep reading to find the answers or solutions. I used this tactic in my first TEDx talk, asking “What if I told you that caring for your body was the least important part of your health?” Right away, people are curious.
9. Begin with a reflection or contemplation.
Start your memoir with a reflective or contemplative moment that sets the overall tone and theme of your story. Share a personal insight, a lesson learned, or a question that has driven your journey.
10. Share a poignant memory or image.
Start your memoir with a poignant memory or a vivid description of a significant event or place. This can set the stage and create a strong emotional connection with the reader right from the beginning.
11. Write about a specific time period of your life.
Pick the timeline on a calendar. Will it be one year of your life? Your whole autobiography? Only one week? One day? One hour?
12. Incorporate a powerful quote.
Begin your memoir with a meaningful quote that encapsulates the essence of your story or reflects the themes you’ll explore. This can set the tone and provide a unique perspective that captures the reader’s interest.
13. Pick a sense and write everything you can remember about that sense.
What does your nose remember? What do your eyes remember? What do your fingertips remember? What sounds come to you?
14. Start by making notecards of the highlights you want to cover, but don’t worry about the order.
If you’re old enough to remember life before computers, you’ll remember making note cards before writing a school essay or working on a big project. Having something physical to hold in your hands and move around can help with structure for those who like to organize before starting to write.
15. Show off your ability to create scenes with words by leading off with a descriptive scene.
Use evocative and sensory language to paint a vivid picture of the time, place, and atmosphere in which your story takes place. This can transport readers to the world of your memoir from the very beginning.
16. Start with writing the summary on your book jacket cover.
Get your thoughts organized by imagining you’ve already written the book and writing the copy for the inner part of the book jacket.
17. Write the foreword first, pretending you’re your favorite famous person reviewing it.
Let your imagination run wild. Dream up the person you’d most want to write the foreword to your book, then see if you can imagine what they might write. Dreaming fuels our creative muses, so dream big!
I hope that helped! Summer is upon us. If you feel inspired to start working on your memoir this summer, join me, Nancy Aronie, and Jennifer Brown for more inspiring, practicing, and healing tools for telling your story as a creative and therapeutic process.