Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a skydiver all at once without leaving your writing table as you take an indepth look at an event (or series of events) that shaped your life. It is not an entire life as autobiography is and the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer.

         A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. 

         There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it may be because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. You must, as Hemingway suggested, “know what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, or had been taught to feel.”

         The second ingredient of a powerful memoir is a reflective quality; that sense of looking back on experiences, exploring patterns and organizing and finding meaning. Some things that we choose to write about may not be inherently all that interesting but it is what you make of them that counts – how you intensify the feeling behind the moments. Using the five senses to describe a scene heightens that intensity and makes it accessible to the reader.  You may be writing about ordinary family experiences, but the reflective process is lets the reader know how you were transformed, how you understand that experience, today.

         In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The goal is to be a witness and a storyteller.

         The hallmark of memoir – the writer’s goal – is to express both Now and Then – Present – Past.  It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience then and expressing what that experience means to us now.  We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self.

         Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning – The event itself might be latent for years and then – poof – somehow we feel there is a story there. 

         Memories survive on fleeting sensory details – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song.  It’s these details that make the story accessible.

         Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are. And sometimes it might involve actual travel.

         The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a freethinking adult in relation to her strict faith in the Roman Catholic religion as a child. She explored the question by traveling to several catholic shrines and monasteries in the U.S. and Europe – re-immersing herself in the rituals and beliefs of the church. Her memoir, Virgin Time, is a thoughtful reflection of her findings.

         Writing is a way of grounding yourself. It’s a way of trying to make sense of life, to find meaning in accident, reasons why you might respond the way you do – even though looking for the “why” can be a distraction. Truth is the goal – truth and clarity. Not – the truth – but your truth.

         The best stories come from collecting bits and pieces, odds and ends of life experience. Especially if we write down seemingly random notes as much as possible using descriptive language that utilizes the five senses. Smell, taste, touch hearing and sight. Our memories are a collection of precious broken bits floating about.  When we take one of these bits and begin to fashion something we realize that life is not a fixed star, it’s full of brokenness, that sense that this happened and this happened, and a great happiness comes from bringing the pieces together into a story with meaning.

         Here is a good place to say what memoir is not – it’s not a place to take revenge or to cast oneself as a victim. It does not have to be a tell-all or a serving up of dirty laundry in order to be interesting to readers. Memoir should not be self-serving – if you come out in the end as anything less than profoundly human, you’re probably writing something else. Maybe a self-help book. The craft of memoir involves writing in a way that the reader experiences the writer as fully human; funny, inquisitive and capable of reconciliation with the past. Reconciliation is more powerful and interesting than revenge. Poor little me – or good little me – is not a good motive for memoir. The hallmarks of a good memoir are clarity and generosity, and clarity usually involves humility, maybe more than the writer started out with. We, hopefully, find our humanness in the process of writing. As a writing prompt, Abigail Thomas suggests writing a couple of pages about a time when you were extremely pleased with yourself and then another time when you, “failed to rise to the occasion.” 

         To get into the habit of writing, you need to write down those shards. It starts to become a habit even if it doesn’t look like one. After you’ve been collecting bits and pieces for a while – something will emerge.

         If you really feel blocked or cut off from writing but want to write, try writing a couple of pages of completely uninspired diary entries. Anne Frank called her diary “Kitty.” When you think of the sameness of her days – -even in the midst of the tension she lived in – somehow she managed to say something to Kitty day after day. She was interested in her own normal daily thoughts and reactions to things around her. I wonder how she would have reflected back on her diary entries if she had survived to write a memoir of her experience.

         A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish.  It’s the same idea expressed by Vivian Gornick when she says, there is the situation – in fact there may be several situations – and then there is the story. If you need ideas to get started, Janet Burraway suggests drawing a floor plan of the first house you remember. Then place an “X” on the places in the house where significant things happened to you. Write a story about one of those experiences. Another approach is to think of an experience in your life that you do not fully understand. Write a list of questions about it and then write the answers. You can help the story unfold by asking yourself further questions: Was it really like that? Who was with me at the time? What did the room look like? What did I do next? In memoir we illuminate our personal experiences so that readers thinks about their own lives in more meaningful ways. Write, plainly and clearly, and the reader will add in his or her life and feel it personally. They will resonate with your story if you demonstrate honest, thoughtful reflection.          

               The significance of what we have lived is revealed slowly, sometimes over a period of years. Life happens too fast, sometimes, for us to take it in immediately. The process of memoir is the unpacking and interrogation of that event so that we can understand how it shaped our life.   We need for people to write memoir in this world because we need the details of individual experience. Otherwise, history becomes an abstract generalization of life with representation by a few. History should be the collective experience of many. We need witnesses to tell their story.