When you write about your life, do you tell your story from the beginning (“I was born in a town with one cow, one church, and one jukebox”)? Or do you tell about just one year of your life (as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love)?
To answer that question, let’s start with this distinction:
Autobiography is the story of your entire life.
Memoir is one story from your life.
Generally autobiography is reserved for the famous, though if you’d like to leave a documented legacy of your life for your children and grandchildren, autobiography is one way to do it. But writing an autobiography is often a daunting task and can take a good long while to accomplish.
Writing a memoir is less intimidating. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a book, and a book is a big project. But it’s a more approachable undertaking.
In a memoir you don’t have to get every detail of your life down on paper; you don’t even have to remember every detail. There’s more room for approximation and poetic license; there’s even room to share your wisdom, your humor, and your insights.
When it comes time to plan out (or outline) your memoir, know that you can organize it pretty much any way you want. It doesn’t even have to be strictly chronological. You can organize it around a running theme in your life (example: the quilts you learned to make with your grandmother and the stories that were told while quilting, and how you’re now passing all this on to your granddaughter); or you can tell about one pivotal year in your life and the insight—and hindsight—you now have about it; or you can follow a thread of the lessons you’ve learned, the mistakes you’ve made, or the even the food you’ve eaten!
Remember, you don’t have to start at the beginning. Many great narratives (novels, memoirs, even films) start at a pivotal, exciting moment, then rewind to the beginning to tell how you got to that moment.
But what if you don’t know what to write? The good news is you don’t have to know in order to start. Sitting down and writing is often the best way to explore what it is you want to write about in the first place. (You can start with freewriting.)
And the best part about writing a memoir is you already know the facts. Everything you need is already inside you.
I’ll revisit the subject of how much to tell in a later post; look for: Calling It Like It Is: “Do I Use Their Real Names?”
If you’d like to take a class in memoir writing, check out “Write Your Life” on my workshops page.