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How to Mine for the Truth that Readers Want in Your Memoir Writings
Mining and Truth in Memoir Writing

Memories have a tendency to hide, tease, and sometimes even lie. Some memories are more vivid than others. You may remember every detail from a family dinner 20 years ago but cannot remember the one last week. Some memories you want to remember are vague and frustrating. Some memories you want to forget are as clear as day. Others are just plain nonsensical.

For this article, we will focus on even more ways to help jog and focus your memories for your memoir.

Ask for Help

Unless you are a hermit, there are numerous friends, family, and co-workers that can share considerable impressions and recollections of you throughout your life. Many of these people also have similar memories of people, places, and events that you all share. Their recollections may jump-start your own memory, or at least give you the details you need to complete your story.

The recollections of others may also confuse you and conflict with your own remembrance. Do not worry. It is very common for people to remember a shared event differently. As long as you acknowledge the differences, you are writing about your memories as you remember them.

Memory Joggers

A memory jogger is anything that evokes a response related to your life experience. Before you begin your memoir, collect as many of the following objects to help jog your memory:

1. scrapbooks and photo albums;

2. high school and college yearbooks;

3. journals and diaries;

4. baby books;

5. old schoolwork and report cards;

6. old letters and greeting cards;

7. legal documents, including marriage licenses, birth certificates, tax records, property records, divorce decrees, adoption papers, military records;

8. genealogy or family history work done by others;

9. family movies or videotapes;

10. family heirlooms.

Major Life Events

Perhaps the easiest things to remember are major life events. While on the surface they tend to be cliche memories, try looking at them from a different angle. Use these memories as jumping off points. Rather than simply remember a divorce or new job, try to examine how you got to that point and how you moved on from that point.

Make a list of the monumental events of your past. While some are obvious, others may not have seemed so important at the time but turned out to be major influences on your life. The following events are some of the more obvious choices:

• births;

• deaths;

• marriages;

• divorces;

• military service;

• potentially dangerous situations;

• illnesses;

• family crises;

• educational matters: choice of schools, courses of study, etc.;

• job choices;

• milestones;

• honors and achievements.

Once you make your list, determine which events are most important and influential and then rank them accordingly. Beginning with the most important event, write as much as you can remember. Be as specific as possible, including as much detail as possible. Try to answer the who, what, when, where, and why of each event. Also, begin to consider your reaction at the time and how it affected you later in life. You should not be worried about prose at this point. This is the research and development stage of your memoir, so just write.

Make a Timeline

In addition to ranking, make a timeline of your life, adding the major events as your starting points. Although your memoir will not cover your entire life, you will be able to see how the events of your life are interconnected and inform one other.

Go Home

As the saying goes, "Home is where the heart is." If you want to get to the heart of your memories, think about the home in which they were made. The average person moves several times in a lifetime. Each home creates a unique set of circumstances, including new friends, schools, neighbors, and places to shop, eat, and be entertained. Let us take a closer look at our homes.

For starters, make a list of all of the places you have lived in chronological order. If you can, include the street addresses. Once you have compiled your list, write as much as you can about each place. Here is a list of questions to ask yourself:

• How big was it? How many rooms?

• What color was it, inside and out?

• How was it constructed: wood, brick, stucco, stone, etc.?

• Describe the landscaping.

• Was the house cozy or cold?

• How many people lived there? List relatives and non-relatives for each location.

• What was your favorite room in the house? Why?

• Describe your bedroom. Where was it located in the house?

• Did your house have a basement or attic? If so, how did you use the space?

• Briefly describe your neighborhood and how you did or did not fit in.

• Do you have any special memories associated with this particular residence?

•Describe your feelings as you moved in or left from this location. What did you like or dislike about it?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Memories

Photographs, film, and videos are a memory's best friend. Nothing brings the past to life better than visual reminders.

Sort through your collection of photos and pull the ones that trigger memories you want to include in your memoirs.

With each photograph, identify who is who and what the persons are doing and when and where they are doing it. Write as much as you can about the photo and add it to the appropriate spot on your timeline.

Photographs have a tendency to create a domino effect. You will often find yourself thinking about events and people you have not thought about in ages. Let your mind wander. Your memoir should be a journey of self-discovery.

Use Your Senses

Sometimes the smallest sensory experience can trigger a wave of memories. The smell of someone's cologne, the taste of chocolate, or the touch of silk can bring back countless memories of yesterday.

You can tap your sensory memories by remembering or experiencing some of these triggers. Consider the following list of ideas:

. favorite food;

• comfort food;

• holiday foods;

• clothes you wore;

• sheets of your bed;

• cologne or perfume of your parents, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife;

• cars you have owned;

• books you have read;

• good smells;

• bad smells.

Try Acting

As you begin to pinpoint certain memories that you want to include in your memoir, consider the power of re-enactment. Therapists often use re-enactment with their patients to get to the heart of the problem.

Organize the scene and play out the various roles. Put yourself in the various roles to gain a new perspective on the memory.


There is a big difference between emotional truth and factual truth. You may feel that the latter is not overly important when writing a memoir. However, when you decide to write a memoir, you are entering into a contract with your readers and saying, "This really happened." On the other hand, a memoir is based on how you remember your life. No one can possibly remember events, names, places, and conversations exactly as they happened. However, if you are reliable and truthful, your reader will give you the leeway to tell the story the way you remember it.

It is important that your memoir is limited to your experiences. Oftentimes, you may be tempted to fill in the memory gaps or change the way things happen to make you appear more interesting, heroic, courageous, or appealing. It is crucial that you fight this urge so that you do not taint the integrity of your work.

Memories have a way of constantly changing and revising as time goes on. The only way to address this issue is to be conscious of it. While there is probably no absolute truth in both memoir and life, you owe it to your readers to capture the essence of truth.
Anatomy of a Scene and Structure

Now that you have re-familiarized yourself with your past, written about your memories from both the past and present perspective, and organized your significant life events with a timeline, it is time to write your memoir.

Before we address the anatomy of a scene and structure, let us go over the basics of what a memoir should be.

Grab Your Reader's Attention

You need a hook. Most successful memoirists use fiction writing's flashback technique. We will talk more about structure in a bit, but writers who use this technique will start in the middle of the story, then use flashbacks to fill in the gaps. This is a tried and true way to immediately grab your reader's attention.

Rather than begin with your birth, consider opening your memoir with one of the most memorable events of your life. Create a mystery so the reader will immediately want to know more. Consider the following example of an opening scene:

The roar of the crowd vibrated though the walls of the locker room. As I sat there all alone, I cried. In less than an hour I'd officially run into the record books as an Olympian. I've always been a runner. I ran away from home when I was little. I ran away from people who loved me. I ran away from problems. I ran and ran and ran until that one day when everything changed. But I guess if it hadn't happened I wouldn't be here, ready to run the race of my life. Only thing left for me to do now is to strap on my legs and get out there.

Rather than begin the story with his troubled youth, or the day he lost his legs, or even the end of the race, the writer begins with a mystery. He tells us he is about to run the race of his life, then drops a bombshell on us: He has no legs. Immediately we want to know both the past and the future. We want to know how he lost his legs and if he is going to win the race. Try doing the same with your story. Create a hook and mystery to draw the reader in.

The Story

Like all good stories, a memoir has four basic elements:

The first element of a memoir is conflict. It is represented by things, places, or people who get in your way and prevent you from achieving your goals and desires. Your story will show how you overcame these obstacles, or did not. But even if you did not, be sure to wrap up your story in a way that does not frustrate your readers.

The second element of a memoir is to have a beginning, middle andend. Always ask yourself whether each scene of your memoir is relevant to the overall message.

The third element is writing believable, sympathetic characters. You are writing about real-life people, so resist the urge to portray them as more heroic, loving, or villainous because of their connection to you. This is where you as a writer must concentrate on being objective.

The fourth element of the memoir is the arc or evolution of your characters. The reader expects you to grow and change as a result of the conflicts and resolutions of your life.

Research and Context

Although your memoir is based on your memories, it is important to consider your story's context. If you are writing about your life as an astronaut or struggle with addiction, do not assume that the reader will be knowledgeable on the subject. Things like technical knowledge or slang will need to be explained.

Research the times and places that you talk about for additional background. If you were writing about your first year of law school in New York City, do not simply rely on your memory. Research the time and place in order to give an accurate account of your story's setting.

Anatomy of a Scene

A scene is the most basic and crucial building block of your memoir. If you construct each scene in the right manner and string enough scenes together, then your readers will not want to stop reading.

A memoir usually consists of anywhere from 20 to 60 scenes. Every scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. When writing and reviewing each scene, you should be able to identify all six of the following:

1. Goal: A goal is what you want at the beginning of the scene. This goal should be specific and clearly definable.

2. Conflict: Conflicts are the hurdles that get in your way of reaching your goal. Conflict is the bread and butter of every scene. Reaching your goals without conflict will bore your reader to death.

3. Disaster: A disaster is failing to reach your goal. Once you successfully reach your goal, your reader has no reason to turn the page. Keep your readers guessing as to whether you will ultimately succeed in reaching your goal.

4. Reaction: A reaction is the emotional follow-through to a disaster. When something bad happens, you react. Show and tell your reader how the hurt, pain, and failure is affecting you.

5. Dilemma: A dilemma is a situation in which there are no good options. A real dilemma gives your reader something to worry about; not to mention, it keeps them guessing.

6. Decision: A decision is the act of making a choice among several options. This is where you are proactive and make a decision, no matter how difficult.

To recap, in any given scene, you should have a goal that you want to accomplish. While pursuing that goal, you encounter a conflict. That conflict is most interesting if it ends in a disaster that prevents you from reaching your goal. You then react to the disaster physically, mentally, or emotionally, which forces you into a dilemma. Finally, you decide on a course of action and a new goal. Then the process starts all over again.

Writing Effective Dialogue

Writing realistic dialogue will advance your story and develop and provide exposition without tipping your hat. In fact, good dialogue is probably the No. 1 tool to keep the reader interested. Good dialogue can even disguise a bad plot.

However, as effective and engaging as realistic dialogue can be, nothing will derail your memoir faster than bad dialogue. While writing good dialogue takes time to develop, there are some things you can do to improve.

1. Get into the habit of listening to how people talk to each other. Eavesdrop on conversations at the coffee shop or grocery store and write down phrases that pop out. A great phrase or style of speech can bring a character to life. Keep in mind that the dialogue has to fit the character. Just because you love the slang you overheard from a particular teenager does not mean it will fit the doctor in your story.

2. Dialogue should read like real speech, but in reality it is an exaggerated, hyper-real version of the way we speak. While we tend to use a lot of "uhs," "ums," and other mutterings, it is best to keep these extraneous words off the page.

3. Edit your words and sentences that do not advance the conversation or story. Be critical of your dialogue and cut everything that does not serve the story.

4. Too much exposition through dialogue will read as forced. Try to avoid writing long monologues as they tend to be unnatural. Let the story unfold naturally between characters. Brevity is your best friend.

5. Try to keep a character's dialogue to less than three sentences. Also try to break up dialogue with action. Remember: It is always better to show than tell when possible. Rather than have your character tell someone how mad he or she is, have the person kick a wall or scoff.

6. Limit your tag lines when writing dialogue. Too many "he said/she said" reminds readers that they are reading. Instead, use a variety of tags, such as "counseled," "conceded," and "stammered."

7. Limit the use of profanity and slang, as they tend to date your memoir. Straight English will ensure more of a timeless read.

8. Avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes often alienate and offend your readers.

9. Punctuate dialogue correctly. Improper punctuation will distract your reader.


Ten ways to structure a memoir:

1. a theme or a thread;

2. chronological;

3. flashbacks;

4. function: how things work;

5. journey: circular changes, from beginning to end;

6. mosaic: pieces of a puzzle or little vignettes;

7. organic: from physical qualities or layout;

8. origins: how things came to be or are made;

9. people or characters;

10. the seasons.
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