How to write a memoir

A memoir is not what happens, but the person to whom things happen. Virginia Woolf

Essential Questions:
What is a memoir? (ie. what are the linguistic features of the genre?)

The term ‘memoir’ is used to describe writing of various lengths.
A memoir is based on one’s life.
A Memoir is written in the first person.
A Memoir renders the ordinariness of our lives significant.

What is the value of reading and writing a memoir?
How might I select the subject matter and angle for an engaging memoir?
How can I write an effective memoir?
How can I give and get effective feedback?

Lets have a look at some examples of some memoirs.
1. The Ten Second Lesson By: Norhafizah Manaf
2. The First Moment of…The Sixties By: Joseph Duffy

What types/styles of memoirs are there? –
A short memoir will have an ‘angle’.

1. The Victim Memoir
Did your mother give you away as a child to her crazy psychologist? Were you sucked into a cult as a teenager and married against your will to an octogenarian?

2. The Survivor Memoir
This is a little different than the victim memoir, because the victim memoir places the author in a situation he or she can’t control but simply must endure. Survivor memoirs, on the other hand, describe scenarios in which the author performs feats of strength, intelligence, heroics, or sacrifice to survive. The term “survivor memoir” can also refer to books written about surviving the Holocaust, although not many folks from this time period are left to tell their stories.

3. The Celebrity Memoir
Are you Madonna? No? That’s okay, because celebrity is a relative term anyway. You can write a celebrity memoir for just about anything these days. Were you a child star? A former hand model? A school board president or local judge? Do you hold the world record for eating the most safety pins in three minutes? Are you the child of a famous author, movie star, or athlete? Everybody’s got a claim to fame; you just have to find yours to write a celebrity memoir.

4. The Insider Memoir
Perhaps you work in a unique industry or you witnessed something of historical significance. If you have a story to tell that can only be told by someone who was there, you should write an insider memoir. Did you fight in the Sandinista Revolution? Were you employed by Enron in its final days?

5. The Love Story Memoir
Maybe you can’t think of a darn thing that makes you unique enough to write a memoir. But what about love? If you’ve had a great love in your life, now’s the time to write it. Everyone loves a love story, particularly if the lovers have to overcome obstacles to be together.
A Memoir is always a selective representation.

Tools for writing en effective memoir

A memoir’s beginning should grab the reader’s attention.

The middle of a memoir shares important actions and details about the experience.

While the end, comes after the main action and needs to show what was learned.

Writing the Outline & Planning

Create an outline for this period of time in your life which needs to contain the details and emotions of your life at the time this memoir takes place.

Divide the action into three parts and outline for events, details and emotions in each part.(Beginning/Middle/End)

Divide a page into six boxes. On the left side, write the beginning, middle and end of your memoir in a few sentences, using as many details and as much information as possible.

Create a three box planner. Draw three boxes in the middle of the page. In the middle box, draw the most important event of the story. In the first box, draw what happened immediately before the most important event. In the last box, draw what happened immediately after the most important event. Write a one sentence caption under each box. Draw a box outlining the page. On each side of the box, write key aspects of the memoir such as the setting, emotions felt, important people or key dialogue. These can be adjusted as needed to focus on a specific topic.

Characteristics of a Memoir

Get to know the narrator. The audience must connect with the narrator. Share information about yourself or things you might have in common with the audience.

Use description that brings the story to life. Teachers commonly use the phrase “show not tell” here. Use descriptive words and phrases, making the reader feel like they were present when the action took place.

Include dialogue that shows feeling. In this case, less often means more. Include only the most important dialogue that has the most impact.

Feature a beginning that catches the reader’s attention. Hook your readers immediately. A few ideas include starting in the middle of the action, having the characters talk, beginning with a surprising statement or fact, or giving some important background information.

Add sensory details. These are words or descriptions that appeal to one of your senses. Sensory details provide a complete look at the story, and make your memoir more interesting.

Share thoughts and feelings. This allows readers to understand how the experience affected you, and what you were going through. Thoughts and feelings help build a connection to the narrator.

Reveal why the event was important. Writers share what they learned from this experience, building a connection with the audience. Writers want to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Pulling it All Together

Tips for constructing a first draft include:

Write on every other line on one side of the paper. Keep your writing as neat as possible, but don’t worry if you make a mistake. This makes revising easier.

Add new ideas that come to mind as you write. Memoir writing is a process of discovery.

Note any parts you may want to change, or make the changes as you write.

Remember your purpose and audience. Keeping your focus helps tell a good story.


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