How To Write A Memoir
Why write a memoir? Memoirs are stories. When writing stories about your life you will use many of the same tricks you use when writing fiction. You write them to share with others an interesting event that has happened to you or that you observed. To make sure your memories don’t disappear. To be able to share them in the future with family and friends, and to re-live the event(s) yourself. Finally, writing like this can help you understand the things that have happened to you.
In our everyday conversations we recount events that have actually happened to us or to the people we care about. We share the things we have got up to - interesting, unusual or sad events. Writing a memoir is good for thinking about our past. We can think about who we were and who we are now.
What’s great about memoirs is they can be about anything you or someone else have really done, in real life!
The best memoirs are about an event or experience that was really important to you, that you’ll always remember. These can be happy, sad or funny moments.
A good memoir describes an event in an interesting way.
(Tenor) Your role as the writer
You have to make sure you choose an event that people will want to read about. You then have to keep it interesting throughout. Readers don’t want to get bored.
Readers are often less interested in the event itself but rather your thoughts and feelings during the event you are describing. Set the reader up for the experience in your very first sentence or paragraph:
E.g. You may not believe this, but this really happened to me.
3. (Mode) What it looks like
Example of a memoir
The Great Mouse Plot
My four friends and I had come across a loose floor-board at the back of the classroom, and when we prised it up with the blade of a pocket-knife, we discovered a big hollow space underneath.
One day, when we lifted it up, we found a dead mouse lying among our treasures. It was an exciting discovery. Thwaites took it out by its tail and waved it in front of our faces. ‘What shall we do with it?’ he cried.
‘Why don’t we’, I said, ‘slip it into one of Mrs Pratchett’s jars of sweets? Then when she puts her dirty hand in to grab a handful, she’ll grab a stinky mouse instead.’
The other four stared at me in wonder. Then, as the sheer genius of the plot began to sink in, they all started grinning. ’We’ll do it today!’ they cried. ’We’ll do it on the way home! You had the idea,’ they said to me, ‘so you can be the one to put the mouse in the jar.’
Thus everything was arranged. I kept to the rear of the group, and when I saw Mrs Pratchett turn her head away for a couple of seconds, I lifted the the heavy glass lid of the Gobstopper jar and dropped the mouse in. Then I replaced the lid as silently as possible.
As soon as we were outside, we broke into a run. ‘Did you do it?’ they shouted at me .
‘Of course I did!’ I said.
‘Well done you!,’they cried.
I felt like a hero. I was a hero. It was marvellous to be so popular.
(From ‘Boy’, by Roald Dahl)
This event happened while Roald Dahl was at boarding school.
Diary Entry: Wednesday, 8 July 1942
I was exhausted, and even though I knew it’d be my last night in my own bed, I fell asleep right away and didn’t wake up till Mother called me at five-thirty the next morning. Fortunately, it wasn’t as hot as Sunday: a warm rain fell throughout the day. The four of us were wrapped in so many layers of clothes it looked as if we were going off to spend the night in a refrigerator, and all that just so we could take more clothes with us. No Jew in our situation would dare leave the house with a suitcase full of clothes. I was wearing two vests, three pairs of pants, a dress, and over that a skirt, a jacket,a raincoat, two pairs of stockings, heavy shoes, a cap, a scarf and lots more.
Margot stuffed her satchel with schoolbooks, went to get her bicycle, and rode off into the great unknown. At any rate, that’s how I thought of it, since I still didn’t know where our hiding place was.
At seven-thirty we too closed the door behind us; Moortje, my cat, was the only living creature I said goodbye to. According to a note we left for Mr. Goldschmidt, she was to be taken to the neighbours, who would give her a good home.
The stripped beds, the breakfast things on the table, the pound of meat for the cat in the kitchen - all of these created the impression that we’d left in a hurry. But we weren’t interested in impressions. We just wanted to get out of there, to get away and reach our destination in safety. Nothing else mattered.
From: Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl.
Anne Frank was a girl who lived during the Second World War in Holland. Because she was Jewish, she had to go into hiding from the Nazis. Whilst in hiding, she wrote a diary which is now famous.
Anne Frank thought of her diary as a friend, called her Kitty, asked her questions, and chatted to her in writing.
No One's Day But Ours.
We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after, I thought.
Looking out the window and watching the bright sunshine reflect off my dad’s car and into my eyes, I felt a warm glow. Waving goodbye, I knew today was going to be just perfect. It was no coincidence perhaps that I could see the Chattri from that very same window. The promised land almost teasing me.
I grabbed my backpack and met my friends by the post-box, just as we had planned. “Have you got the goodies?” I asked Joe excitedly. He assured me he had, and from the rustle I could hear as we walked, I believed him with all my heart. Joe always had a way of making you feel reassured, perhaps it was his height and frame. Joe was taller than the rest of us. He had sharp, almost white messy hair, which made him endearing and trustworthy to parents.
Looking back now, our impatience to get to the Chattri caused our ‘short-cut’ to not be so short at all. Negotiating all the fences and the barbed wire which came with them was trying. The barbed wire seemed, at times, to be like fighting against the ocean’s tide. “Maybe we should have just used the paths?” Dan suggested, sarcastically. Dan was the shortest in the group, and at our age that meant something. He was also incredibly skinny and had comically thin, hairless legs. Legs that seemed to protrude from out of his shorts like twigs.
“Where would the adventure be in that?” I said, in such a way that I didn’t even believe myself. We still had a way to go and it was cold and lonely in the shade of the valley. The warmth and the light shone on the Chattri - right at the top of the hill - but not on us.
When we finally got there, Joe opened his rucksack to reveal what we had all been waiting for. It was a feast to the eyes for any 11 year old boy. It was all the treasures a boy of that age could dream of: chewy strawberries and snakes by the bundle, the largest cola bottles you could get - and full sugar too! Not to mention what felt like endless packets of Haribos. We held them in our hands and raised them up to the clear blue skies - like savages - like a sacrifice - like a victory cry.
This was it. This was freedom. We were free, free to do what we wanted to do, and what we wanted was to be together and be alone. Alone to scream and shout; to holler and play hijinks and silly-fools. We played together that day, like the clock stopped. Today was our day.
My lasting impression will always be standing at the top of that hill, ripping at a chewy-snake, stretching it away from my back teeth, eyes shut, head back, hearing my friends rolling down the hill into the thick and welcoming grass and feeling king. King of my world, with my comrades there to support me. Soaking up the day, we didn’t need or want for anyone or anything - least of all our parents.
“We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,” I whispered into the silk of that afternoon breeze. I wonder where that afternoon breeze is now?
By Mr. Teacher.
The Best Time Ever
Picture to yourself a hot, dusty, dirty classroom,in a hot, dusty, dirty school,in a hot, dusty, dirty old city somewhere in the middle of England. It is a July afternoon in 1976, and there hasn’t been a drop of rain for months. In the city, there are standpipes for water at every street corner. In the countryside, fires are constantly breaking out in the parched, dried-up cornfields. It’s a strange time, and strange things happen.
Back in the classroom, flies come in through the open windows and buzz around the heads of thirty children who are flopping listlessly at their desks. I am trying to read them a story, but no-one is really listening, and one or two are even nodding off. Suddenly, my friend, who has the class next to mine, pops her head round the door and says “We’re going to the park to find some shade. Want to come?” So we do.
In the park there is a large paddling pool which, miraculously, still has two feet of water in it. The children make a beeline for it, take off their shoes, and dip their toes in the coolness. I hitch up my maxi-dress and do the same. Suddenly, there’s a splash. Someone’s in the pool. It’s one of my boys! Did he slip? Was he pushed? Or did he throw himself in? There’s a silence. The children all look at me, wondering what I will do. I stand there, uncertain. Then there’s another splash. Someone else is in! Suddenly I can’t do anything but laugh. This is the signal for a spontaneous act of mass immersion. Some fifty children, fully clothed, follow each other into the pool, like lemmings jumping off a cliff. The pool is filled with wriggling, writhing, screaming, shrieking, splashing bodies. It’s glorious and exhilarating. The best time ever.
Later, we struggle back to school in a dripping, steaming crocodile, the girls with their long black plaits oozing water and their silky salwar trousers clinging to their skinny legs. It’s not till we are almost there that I begin to have a few worries. Will the Head want an explanation? And how will the parents take it? The children go straight home, and I think it’s best if I do too. My friend from the other class is anxious about the consequences, and I have to reassure her that I will take the rap if there is one, which I am increasingly sure there will be. I spend an uncomfortable evening expecting a barrage of complaints from the parents in the morning, complaints on the grounds of their child’s health or, worse still for me, possibly on religious grounds.
But, amazingly, there was not a single one. Maybe the heat had affected everyone’s brains. But what I learned that day is that sometimes, just sometimes, it’s okay to let go of yourself, throw caution to the winds, and live dangerously for a moment. And that it’s great.
A true story by Mrs. Teacher
Questions To Ask Yourself For Memoir Ideas*
Why memoir? It means the world becomes yours. If you don’t do it, it drifts away and takes a whole piece of yourself with it… Memoir? It’s like taking possession of your life, isn’t it.’ - Ted Hughes
*Taken from Atwell, N. (2002) Lessons That Change Writers Heinemann: USA
More Ways To Come Up With Memoir Ideas
Everyday Things I Do:
Special, Different, Strange, Exciting Experiences I’ve Had:
Things I Enjoy:
Things I Hate!
Boxing-Up A Memoir
Introduce the place and your event.
E.g. You may not believe this, but this really happened to me.
Write, in order, only the most important moments.
You might want to use these time connectives.
When we finally got there,
To help you plan, write two lists:
1. All the thoughts that went through your mind.
2. A list of the emotions you felt.
Why was this event significant or important to you?
What did you learn, gain or understand because of this experience.
Now You’ve Written Your Boxing Up, Write A Blurb To Show How Good Your Idea Is.
In One Sentence, This Is What My Piece Is Going To Be About:
This Is Who I’m Writing For:
This Is What I Want Them To Think, Feel Or Do After They’ve Read What I’ve Written:
Get Your Details Together Before You Start Vomit Drafting
Get Your Opening Just Right: Examples Of How To Write Memoir Openers
Question Type Opening:
Description Type Opening:
Thought Type Opening:
Speech Type Opening:
“Harry has died,” Mum said to me in a mournful voice in the morning.
Shock or Surprise Type Opening:
Action Type Opening:
Memoir: Compositional Checklist
Important Things To Consider When Planning A Memoir
What will people enjoy about reading your memoir?
Is it sensitive? Is it about something important?
Is it really funny?
Have you used one small personal experience to explore a larger phenomenon?
E.g: the importance of family, friendship, loneliness, independence, freedom, love, death, kindness or bullying.
Have you started ‘too far upstream’ for your memoir to be thrilling from the start? Start at the waterfall.
Make sure you focus on one pebble on the beach and focus hard - instead of trying to write about all the pebbles!
Important Things To Consider When Writing A Memoir
Have you set the reader up for the experience in your very first sentence or paragraph?
E.g. something like: You may not believe this, but this really happened to me...
Write your memoir just like you would an interesting, sad or funny story!
NO ONE wants to read a boring old list of things that happened...
Does your writing suggest you were having fun or sharing something really sensitive and powerful when you wrote it?
Have you described what happened - use storytelling techniques like Roald Dahl & Michael Rosen do?
Can your reader, see it, hear it and feel it?
Have you described new settings just like you would in story writing?
Have you described people/animals just like you would in story writing?
Have you used hyperbole like Michael Rosen does to exaggerate things?
Share those important little details poetically - just like Michael Rosen does.
Remember, you can bend the truth if you think it will add something to your memoir.
In your last paragraph have you revealed to your reader why you wrote about this event? What did you learn, gain or understand from living this experience?
Do you have an interesting and unusual title to draw in your reader?