May 20, 2020 Carol Brennan King

Well , the final class in our trial run at Abington Community Library using Zoom to teach my writing workshops is in the books. From my perspective anyway, this one went well.

The next four workshops will be Story-telling! Whether you are telling your own story (memoir) or stories you made up, the elements are the same. So whichever genre is your thing, I believe you will find a home with us.

These workshops will be interactive. I will be presenting some new material each week, and each student will be presenting a piece they have written. Every student will be engaged with encouraging their fellow writers specifically. Think “What works really well?” and “What is one thing that might be improved?” I encourage you to explore more or to register to join us online by contacting

Linde Maurer at lmaurer@albright.org

Now for the notes from Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Writing your memoir

Getting warmed up:

If you were the object of an interview, what questions would that person ask you.

What were three events that impacted you before you were 20?

What world events, natural or otherwise imprinted themselves on your memory during that period?

I wanted to write about my mother. After all, mothers play an enormous part in our lives. So I went in sideways speaking about her hands.

“I must have been about seven, maybe eight when I noticed them for the first time, the kind of notice that locks an image into one’s long term memory to surface from time-to-time unexpectedly when prompted by an image of a similar sort or to be summoned for comfort when needed.”

The rest of that piece moves on to other memories of my mother, finally landing on the key memory of her first heart attack.

Start thinking about the following questions:

Think about who will read your book?  And why? That will help you set tone, but you must feel free to change this as you work. You may realize you actually are writing for a different audience.

Interview yourself like a professional journalist would or think about the questions you would ask someone you do not know to discover their best story.

Be prepared to research. Yes, it is your story, but how trustworthy is your every memory? I discovered the exact dates of a hurricane that figured in my story by researching it. And that research meant that I could be so specific about that memory that others who also experienced it or read about it could enter into my memory.

I knew that a hurricane visited Towanda when I was about eight but I wasn’t sure of the date until I did some research. That chapter in my memoir opens with these lines:

“Shouting, the halls were filled with noise, and nobody had to tell us the teachers were worried about something. I could hear them talking about Hazel, she was coming for sure, but I didn’t know who she was. Parents were calling up the stairs to our classsrooms on the second floor, yelling for kids to hurry up, so I ran out to see if I could see her or figure out who Hazel was.”

  1. Investigate every story, fact, feeling, or vague inclination you have about your past insofar as it applies to your story.
  2. Look up anything that can be verified or fact-checked: World news, local weather, dates, places, events. Think hurricanes, blizzards, political events, deaths or notable figures.
  3. Revisit locations and settings from the past that you plan to write about.
  4. Interview your family members, friends, and others who were around in certain eras.
  5. Draft a timeline of your life by year. Writing about certain memories will also pull up more memories as you open the floodgates.
  6. Don’t invent or make things up — especially not anything that can be verified (see Frey, James: A Million Little Pieces
  7. What is your message or theme? What is your takeaway or why should someone want to read your book?

You might not start with a clear idea of what you’re trying to say. But through your research and interviews, you may begin to find that certain lessons or ideas keep popping up throughout your life. And once you discover the spine of your story, you’re off to the races.

With your interview answers in hand, you will likely have too many stories to pick from.

Which ones should you prioritize, and which ones should take a back seat?

Grab the reader’s attention from the beginning…just as you would in fiction. You are still telling a story, albeit, a true one. So start with an episode that reveals, in some way, the central theme of the story. I find it helps to think of this as a story, not a book. It helps to keep you focused.

A story in my memoir titled Walking Home opened with these lines:

‘He was supposed to be there to take me home, but he wasn’t. Again.’

Does that draw you in or make you want to know more?

  • Focus hard on detail and dialogue just like you would with fiction.

This falls into the classic writing advice of ‘Show, don’t tell.’

“Remember to describe how you felt about things as they happened,” Crofts says. “Don’t go into too much description (no beautiful sunsets). In fact, keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, making the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Keep detailed information such as dates and times to a minimum unless crucial to the story.”

Back to that interview thing, here are a few questions to ask yourself when thinking of writing your own memoir:

1. What was one thing (your mother or father did or anyone) that really frustrated you as a teenager or ever?

2. What was your most profound moment in your journey toward love?

3. When was the first time you saw a parent cry? And last and why?

4. Think of three or four significant moments in your childhood. Don’t argue with them, just write them down.

5. What was your greatest success(s) in your career? 

6. What did you do to earn your first money or first big paycheck? Or last since we are in an unusual time? 

7. How did your parents’ relationship as you knew them impact you? Or What was your most memorable moment of family love?

8. Consider the stability of your growing up years. What made it stable and what may have made it unstable or have such effects on you? 

9. What do you feel was the biggest sacrifice you ever made?

10. Have you ever felt like a hero? Or was there ever a time when someone expressed that something you did meant a lot to them? What were the circumstances?

11. What have you been most embarrassed about?

12. Name a time you were on top of the world or When were you the most afraid, confused, euphoric, etc? Those are the moments when you see the true character of a person emerge.”

13. What is one habit or way of looking at yourself no one knows about? Can you figure out why?

14. What was the first thing you wanted to do with your life?  How does that relate to who you are?   What would you like to do about that if you are not happy about that?

15. Who was your favorite childhood playmate or friend in high school? And why?

16. What was the bravest thing you ever did? Whether you thought of it as brave at the moment or not?   

And you can probably think of other questions. The point is gather information about yourself, as though you were writing about someone else. Then, be selective about the stories you could tell. Choose those that were truly formative.

Remember, your memoir should have a takeaway. It should have some bits

that your reader could identify with. And, it has to be engaging. The writing and story-telling has to draw the reader in and make that person want to know more.

This was a memoir of my early life written for my children. Maybe you might like to write such a memoir as a gift for your children or grandchildren.

One thought on “Slice of Memoir Workshop

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s