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.