How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir


How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir

What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Strictly speaking, a memoir is about a specific period or event in your life. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recounted his life growing up poor in Ireland. His second book, ‘Tis, started when he was a teacher in New York. So, distinct periods.

An autobiography intends to cover the whole life of a person.

Now, this distinction may or may not be important to you. I think it depends on your intended audience.

Your audience

Some people want to write down their experiences in life as a way of leaving a record for future generations. And these can be invaluable as they capture events which would otherwise be lost. So, if your audience is primarily family and friends, you’re probably writing an autobiography.

If you intend a more extensive audience, that is, if you are hoping to publish what you are working on, then a memoir, capturing an important moment or event and exploring its meaning to you and hopefully the wider world, is more likely to be of interest to people who don’t know you.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters what you call it. I think you should just write what you want to say. Nor do I think it a great idea to write with an eye to publication. First, because this exercise, however termed, is a worthwhile activity in and of itself and secondly, assuming publication can lead to a self-censoring, i.e. I don’t want people to know that! I think you get a better book if you just get down what you want to say and leave the editing and publication decisions to when you have a first draft.

So, where do I start?

There are/will be posts on whether to do research, and other background stuff but I am focused here on how to actually start getting words on a page.

In another post, I will cover my preferred way to start writing any piece, but I adjust it here for the memoir.

As a first step, put away any research you have done. If you didn’t consult it again until you were editing your first draft, I’d be happy. But in any case, do not use the research as a guide to what you should write.

Instead, sit down at your computer and just spend a few moments thinking about an event or incident you want to include somewhere in the memoir. Really think about what happened, why it was important, who was there, how you felt about the whole thing.

Then just start writing. Specifically:

  • Try to get it all down. Just let it flow out of you onto the page.
  • Don’t worry about getting the hometown of your second cousin right, or what year you first started to play baseball. Don’t stop for any of that. Just write down the memory.
  • Include as much detail and as many feelings as you remember. Don’t just stick to the facts, ma’am.
  • If you need to, leave blanks where you know something else is needed that you can’t remember at the moment.

Once you’ve done that memory, think of another and follow the same process. You really can build an entire memoir from this method as you can a novel. It is a much more entertaining approach for you and has the added advantage of providing a more vivid picture than a from-the-cooling-of-the-earth-to-now litany would.

Once you’ve done all the incidents you want to include, I have suggestions on how to weave it into a complete memoir which I’ll post in the future.

Getting the Most Out of Readers’ Opinions


Getting the Most Out of Readers’ Opinions

Omg, I love it!

When you ask the opinions of others on a piece of your writing, whether it be fiction or memoir, I think all writers secretly want to hear “OMG, I loved it!” followed by “Don’t change a word.” I get it. Your soul is on the page and you want to hear that it’s worthwhile. But it’s unlikely to happen because:

  • You asked for comment. Because you asked, people generally feel they have to come up with something helpful. So, the idea that the universal opinion will be of perfection is doomed.
  • Everything can be improved. I know you know this but it can be a different thing when people get specific and figuratively kick your baby. But to access possible improvements, you don’t actually want an omg, don’t change a word response (yes, I know you do emotionally—I’m talking to the other side of the brain).

Handling the opinions correctly

In the last post, a feedback session on your novel didn’t go well for either you or your friend, Marina. Let’s reprise to see if we can make it more satisfying for you both.

Marina: I liked the premise a lot.  
You: Thanks, good to know. You’re not giving the impression that there is a right interpretation the reader should pick up.
Marina: Your main character—I started disliking her— she was so ruthless. Unpleasant surprise. Youwere going for determined not ruthless.
You: Really? In what way? Ask for info rather than trying to get the answer you’d prefer.
Marina: Well, that dirty trick on her old boss—that seem-ed pretty mean.  
You: So, is it that incident which made her seem ruthless? You are getting data on whether it’s a trait of the character.
Marina: That was probably the worst but generally, she seemed pretty hard- nosed. So, for Marina, it is.
You: Was she unsympathetic as a character? This is critical.
Marina: Funnily enough, even though she was ruthless I kinda wanted her to succeed. Pay dirt!
You: So, being ruthless didn’t make you want to stop reading about her? Which is the main issue.
Marina: No, I wanted to see where it was going to get her.  
Marina may well have other views which you handle in the same way.
You: Marina, thanks. You’ve given me a lot to think about.  
Marina: Happy to do it. It was fun. You can probably ask her for other readings.


You’ve gotten Marina’s opinion without overlaying your own views.

Having said that, you may not be all that happy with it. You really didn’t want to portray a ruthless character and you’re still unsure what to do, if anything. There is some good news:

  • You don’t have to accept her opinions. Reading is such a personal thing because people bring their own world view to it. Getting her true view is important but you can decide whether or not to revamp based on it.
  • You can ask others for comments. It is entirely because reading is so personal that you need a range of opinions. If all opinions say, ‘ruthless,’ it should give you pause but you may still want to stick to your vision. In later posts, I’ll discuss more on this.

The important thing when asking for comments is to up the chances you get the true views of the reader. Whether you change the manuscript based on them is a different issue.

Feedback Defensiveness



Feedback Defensiveness

You have asked a good friend, Marina, to read your manuscript. Here’s how defensiveness can steer a feedback session wrong:

Sorry to take so long to get back to you. It’s been crazy at work and I wanted to do your novel justice.
That’s okay. Thanks for taking the time.
I liked the premise a lot—a young woman who inherits a company and has to learn how to run it.
Yeah, I thought it introduces a young character into an interesting situation.
[Marina will likely tell you other things that she liked. But eventually, she will move on.]
There were just a couple of things—I mean, they’re just my opinion.
I’d be interested in hearing them.
Your main character—I started disliking her—she was so ruthless.
But she had to be in the situation.
Yeah, but that dirty trick on her old boss—that seemed pretty mean.
No, you read that wrong—it wasn’t dirty; it was justice.
Well, that’s not the way I saw it.
I don’t think you got the intent. She has to take every opportunity to succeed.
Maybe, but it’s how it struck me.
[Marina makes other suggestions but YOU don’t find merit in any of them.]
Well, thanks for reading it.
I guess I wasn’t much help.
Of course you were but I think I’ll ask Bernice to read it, too.


Conversation aftermath

You end the conversation dissatisfied. Marina just didn’t get it. It was a waste of time. But in fact, the problem wasn’t with Marina but with your defensiveness. Here’s how:

  • You commented on the good feedback. Yes, you need to acknowledge the positives but not give the impression that she got the correct answer as you sort of did.
  • You justified your view of the character. You discarded the feedback even though it’s important information about how some readers see the character. Might not be everyone but she might represent enough of a minority to worry about. But you were justifying more than listening.
  • You decided her opinion was incorrect. In fiction, it’s hard for anybody’s opinion of a character to be wrong. You may not feel the same way and that’s okay, but she’s still entitled to her opinion.
  • You decided she didn’t get your intent. Doesn’t matter what you intended—what’s on the page is the only thing Marina has access to. If she didn’t get it, you need to pay attention.
  • You probably burned a friend who was willing to give you feedback. By dismissing everything Marina said, you signal that you didn’t value the time and effort she put in. You don’t have to agree with the feedback but you need to make it clear you value her contribution if only so that sh will be willing to do it for the next manuscript.

So, how do you avoid defensiveness in feedback sessions and still keep your vision, whether it be fiction or memoir? In the next post, let’s discuss that.

Showing Show and Tell


Showing Show and Tell

In another post on The Life of Pi, I discussed how the director of that movie gave us a powerful example of the power of show. Let’s look at the uses and effects of ‘show’ and ‘tell.’

‘Tell’ has its uses

Say you are inclined to write something like this:

He listened intently to the orders. He felt his throat tighten at the thought of what Serena told him to do. It was immoral and probably illegal. But he didn’t feel as if he had a choice. He felt as if the walls were closing in.

So, gets across the point that he (let’s call him Matthew) is very unhappy. Efficient way to do it. ‘Tell’ is useful if you need to establish some not very important point in the narrative but which the reader must nevertheless know. But this scene doesn’t seem to be one of these.

The power of show

Let’s rewrite the passage using more ‘show.’

“I can’t do that!” Matthew protested. “Come on, Serena, that’s practically, practically…”

“What, Matthew?” Serena turned the corners of her mouth up but her eyes didn’t change. “Illegal, immoral, unethical, all of the above?”

“I can’t, Serena, I just can’t.” He felt as if the walls were closing in on him.

Serena flipped away his protest. “And yet, you don’t really have a choice, do you?”

See, ‘show’ gives you a much better idea of who the characters are and how they interact. ‘Tell’ is like a semi-transparent screen you put in front of an action you’re observing. You can see but it’s not sharp and clear. ‘Show’ is the screen removed, where you are directly observing what’s going on. And with ‘show,’ the reader can come to his own conclusions about the characters rather than the writer telling how to feel about them.

This distinction is as important in a memoir as it is in fiction. You don’t want to tell your readers what happened; you want them to experience it—‘show’ territory.

Doesn’t ‘show’ take longer?

Yes, it often takes more words for ‘show’ than ‘tell.’ So what? Effectiveness, not efficiency, is what we are after here. The objective for the reader is to live your story not get to its end in record time.

When you want to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects of the character’s life, these are good candidates for ‘show.’ When you want to glide over some things because they’re not germane to your main point but need to be there for the narrative to hang together, ‘tell’ might be useful.

A rule of thumb: If the point you want to establish is important (Sheila really does hate her brother; Matthew is a wimp; Serena has issues), dramatizing it by using ‘show’ is probably a good bet.

Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi



Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi

Have you seen the movie ‘Life of Pi’? Not the book, the movie.  The book, what can I say? Loved the beginning where the protagonist is sampling different religions, loved the end where (spoiler alert!) it’s not clear which of the stories he tells is true. But the middle? Honestly, a boy—Pi— in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

I heard somewhere it called magic realism but I guess I’m just not refined enough to get it. To me, it was a boy in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

So, I was a bit reluctant to see the movie given the boy-boat-tiger thing. However, Ang Lee is such a good director and he was getting a lot of praise for the movie, so I allowed myself to be coerced into seeing it. And, as anticipated, the whole boy on tiger thing played prominently even though Ang Lee did an amazing job with the visuals.

But it wasn’t that which struck me as the master stroke.

Two possible endings in the Life of Pi

In the last scenes, Pi is relating his story to the insurers of the boat. They don’t believe the tiger thing, so to satisfy them, he makes up a story about he, his mother and the ship’s cook surviving in the boat (sans tiger). He says the cook killed his mother and then died himself. The insurers go away with a story they can accept.

But that’s not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is how that last scene is shot. Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor, appears for about a minute at the beginning of the film as the cook being nasty to the boy’s mother on board before the disaster. That’s all we see of him.

Which was odd. Would Depardieu sign on for a minute on screen? I don’t think any famous actor would accept what is essentially a bit part. And then it hit me.

The power of show over tell

I would bet money Ang Lee (well, a small amount) originally filmed an entire alternate story with featured Depardieu’s character of the cook prominently. But when it came to the editing, he realized that if he showed (SHOW) the scenes with the cook on the boat, it would become too real and compete with the story which we have just spent two hours watching. So, instead, he has Pi just tell (TELL) the story. And because we don’t see the alternate story, as viewers, we believe the one we were shown.

This is a wonderful example of the power of ‘show’. When you tell something, as in the alternate story, it has some power but when you show it, as in the story in the movie, it is the reality we buy.

This is why writing teachers harp so much on ‘show’ versus ‘tell.’ ‘Tell’ gives you one effect and ‘show’ another. In the post called Showing Show and Tell, I’ll walk you through an example how to use the power of show in your writing.