A senior man sites down at a desk to write in a journal

Writing Your Memoir: A How-To Guide for Seniors

Have you thought about leaving something of value behind for the people you love? Something even more personal than your personal assets? You might want to consider writing a memoir. You don’t have to be a professional writer or someone with connections in publishing. In fact, if you don’t try to be a “writer” and simply be yourself, you’ll be able to preserve your voice and your perspective for all time. And it’s always your choice whether to publish it or not. The act of writing a memoir is a reward in itself, but it doesn’t hurt to come to the task with some basic understanding and a few memoir writing tips in your pocket. Let’s find out what memoir writing is all about.

What a memoir is, what it isn’t, and what you need to begin.

Is a memoir the story of your entire life? No, that would be a book-length autobiography. A memoir is a much shorter story — it can even be a personal essay — that illuminates one specific aspect of your life. A good, tight memoir takes place during one particular period of time, or one certain set of events. Because of this, you must make a series of reducing decisions. Everyone and everything in your life doesn’t belong in your memoir. You need only include those people and things that are relevant and that coalesce around a single theme — mercy, honor, growth, transcendence, patriotism, love, or whatever it is you feel about this particular episode.

You can write about something from your childhood or a place you’ve visited. You can write about an injustice you encountered, or an unexpectedly happy occasion. A memoir can be about anything, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. You don’t have to search intensely to find episodes you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Just look for small, self-contained incidents that are important to you and still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, they have meaning for you, and they may contain something readers will recognize in their own lives. Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance — not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

Memoir writing is about sharing honestly what you think and feel; it’s writing about something you’ve gone through with the possibility that someone else may learn something from it. It’s also a way for you to learn and understand what you really think about these events that have stayed with you for so long.

Tell your story, but don’t make yourself the hero.

To the extent that you refer to yourself in the narrative, don’t paint yourself as faultless. It comes across as insincere and it doesn’t accurately display the growth and insight that gives your memoir its power. If you skim over your own mistakes or shortcomings, the story will feel superficial, and it’ll be hard for any reader to relate. Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances or settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. The best memoirs are written with a sense of love and forgiveness about something that might have meaning beyond just yourself. So, how do you begin?

Find your theme.

The theme is the universal takeaway from your memoir; it’s how someone else will relate to your personal story. How do you find it? Look back at your life and think about critical choices, influential people, key conflicts, lasting beliefs, changing beliefs, lessons learned, and maybe even mistakes you’ve made. Plot your life’s most significant moments. Look for one pivotal event that stands out as particularly intriguing or meaningful. If you don’t see one, don’t worry. Just look inward and feel the different turning points in your life. Eventually, you’ll find a story that wants to be told — the one experience that led to who you’ve become today.

Interview yourself.

Now that you know what you’ll be writing about and when it happened, sink into your memories, and see if you can uncover something new about it all. Just attempting this may yield new insights or ideas on how you want to structure your story. Collect the key moments of your narrative. Unlike an autobiography, a memoir distills just those relevant moments from a particular event in your life to illuminate your theme. Find the moments of highest emotion … the most important moments on this particular timeline … the moments that changed you.

Be as accurate as you can.

Fact-check everything that can be fact-checked. Dates, names, places, the weather … if you mention any kind of event or anything that would have been in the news, you can fact-check to see if it actually happened the way you remember it. Revisit locations to make sure you’re portraying them accurately. Look through newspapers and photos from that time and place. All this will jog your memory to help you mine for additional details, and also give you an objective reference against which to compare how you remember things. When you’ve done your research, write out a timeline of events to make sure you have everything in order in your mind. If you’re not able to figure something out, don’t make it up … especially if it’s something that could possibly be fact-checked. If you as the author don’t do it, someone else may. Being incorrect about verifiable facts takes away from the credibility of your story.

In medias res.

This Latin term means “in the midst of things.” It’s a narrative technique that, with no preamble or chronological setup, plunges the reader into a crucial situation that’s part of a related chain of events. So, you might start your memoir at a moment of high tension or deep importance that captures the essence of your theme. Then, take readers back to the beginning and work forward to that crucial moment. Telling your story in strict chronological order can come off as predictable and less interesting.  

What was said and done, exactly?

Go for a balance of dialogue and expository detail. Precisely what was said? It’s not always possible to know. It’s rare, if not impossible, to remember the words of everyone involved in actions that may have occurred years ago. Try to think how you felt in the moment. Think of the others who were part of this scene. Recreate dialogue as best you can, and keep it as true to the moment as possible. Don’t twist anyone’s persona. Don’t worry about making what you write perfect. Just relax and focus on getting the story out. There’ll be time to polish it later.

Feedback is important.

Finally, when you think you’re done, but before you actually stop writing, be sure to get some outside opinions of your memoir — from friends or family who are familiar with, or were present at the events you describe, as well as from people unfamiliar with anything in your story. They’ll be able to see it more objectively and determine whether it’s a compelling narrative that stands on its own without the bias of having been in the story themselves. Consider carefully what they tell you, then revisit your draft and make adjustments accordingly.

You might want to enroll in the memoir writing class at The Glebe

A memoir is a portal to self-discovery. Everyone has stories to tell, and telling them teaches us who we are and what we think and feel about things. Living at The Glebe in Southwest Virginia gives senior adults the chance to do this every day.

Our faith-based, nonprofit Life Care community  https://theglebe.org/what-is-life-care/ is home to more than 200 people who moved here to enjoy an engaging, fulfilling, active lifestyle. The Glebe is where excellent service, amazing amenities, the spirit of hospitality, and commitment to exceptional care are the highest priorities.

And yes — in addition to having our own woodworking shop, art gallery receptions and performances by local musicians — we offer a memoir writing class to put you in touch with the moments that make you … you.

Get to know The Glebe. Contact us today.