Of all the different types of nonfiction books, memoir, or life story, seems to take writers the longest to write. Delving into experiences and memories from long ago and making them into a coherent and interesting story–one that reads like a novel and adds value to a reader’s life–isn’t easy. And many write their memoirs while exploring and healing their past, a process that can take time. Yet, completing a memoir doesn’t have to take years. The first draft can even be finished in 30 days. Today, author and life-story expert Denis Ledoux gives you a day-by-day plan to write your memoir in a month. NA
It’s possible to get your first draft of a memoir done in a month’s time. To do so, follow these simple instructions.
- Choose a period of your life to write about. The strict definition of a memoir is the story of a certain time of your life while an autobiography is the story of your entire life. (In practice or common usage, people use the terms interchangeably.) To meet the parameters of a month of writing, it would be easier for you to choose a period of your life rather than your entire life. You can write a memoir but perhaps not an autobiography.
- Set a decent amount of time aside to do the writing. Schedule it. You HAVE to show up for the work. Wishing you were writing or feeling bad that you’re not won’t get our memoir written. The more time you set aside the more you will write and the more likely you will be to meet your goal of writing a memoir in one month.
- Let go of having to write deathless prose on your first draft. What you are accomplishing this month is getting the flow of your story down in a first draft. Your rewriting will have to take place later in your second write through. (This polishing stage will occur in another month.)
- Gather your support material prior to the start of the month. That includes photographs, journals, clippings and photocopies. Read them and become familiar with their contents.
- Follow the day-to-day suggestions listed below. If you are starting late, do November 1 today-whatever the date is–and proceed for the next 30 days. It’s also permissible to do “one” day in two or three or more days. Think of these as steps or units of activity. You will find it useful to read through the list and, if you feel the need to reorder the list, do so to meet our need. This is about you. Depending on the time you can allot daily, you may be able to write more than the recommended assignment. In that case, go back to a previous day and follow it once more.
November 1: Create a Memory List of your life consisting of at least 200 items. (See page 41 of my Turning Memories Into Memoirs/A Handbook for Writing Lifestories.) At this point, this list is derived solely from memory.
November 2: Remember as many details of an event from early on in the memoir story line as you can. Take notes on what you recall. (See Turning Memories Into Memoirs)
November 3: Write a story or a vignette from an item on your Memory List. Remember that this is a first draft.
November 4: Find your memorabilia (diplomas, newspaper articles, certificates, letter) from your memoir timeframe and Memory List at least 50 memories that come to you. Write as many vignettes as you can in the time left that you have allotted to write.
November 5: Share one of your lifestories (from November 3 and 4) with someone who was not part of the stories. Ask them for reactions. What more would they have liked to know? What didn’t “ring true” for them? What questions remained unanswered? Rework the vignette as soon as possible after this session to address these issues.
November 6: Organize a lifestory party at which you invite your friends, your siblings and/or other people who might be able contribute to your info gathering. This is not a social gathering but an information-harvesting event. Tell your guests there will be a free exchange of memories which you will record because you are writing a memoir
November 7: Relate a vignette from your memoir timeframe to your child/grandchild, friend, and/or relative. Record it as you speak. Your object is to experience how it feels to tell a story to a person. Does telling feel different from writing? Again, ask yourself and them the following: What more would you/they have liked to know? What didn’t “ring true” for you/them? What questions remained unanswered? Write the spoken vignette as soon as possible after this session.
November 8: Narrate to someone the backstory of an experience that occurred during the timeframe of your memoir. This is an experience that needs a flashback in the memoir as an explanation. Ask yourself and your listener(s) the following. What more would you/they have liked to know? What didn’t “ring true” for you/them? What questions remained unanswered? Write the vignette as soon as possible after this session.
November 9: Write a journal entry about a day in your memoir time frame. Include salient details that will make the day as vivid as it was right after you lived it. Use this entry to write a story. The difference between a journal entry and a memoir story is that a memoir vignette has to be structured with a plot line. Journals are more free-flowing. Write the vignette as soon as possible after the journal entry.
November 10: Write a 3-to-5-page story about an incident in your memoir timeframe that was pivotal in getting you to resolve the problem you were facing. Remember that John loves Mary and Mary loves John is not a story plot or problem to be resolved. John loves Mary and Mary loves John and John also loves Peter however has the making of a story plot. Structure your stories around problems.
November 11: Write three to five pages of another person’s role in your lifestory. Use the five senses to include salient details.
November 12: Reading day. Select a memoir from a bookstore or library that covers some of the same topic as the memoir you are writing. For instance if you are writing about healing from an illness, select a memoir about healing. Begin reading and keep reading everyday until you are finished.
November 13: View a movie that is a biography. Observe how the camera interprets the story. How can you use the sensibility of the camera to include more details in your stories? How do you need to write to give the reader the sense of “seeing” the story? If you can, rework a story as soon as possible after viewing the film.
November 14: Travel to a place that figures in your memoir. Photograph it for later referral or for including in the book. Memory List the old memories and the new that arise. Write as much as you can in the time remaining to you today.
November 15: Read history (a book, an article, a web posting) of your region, your ethnic group, your industry, your religion, or your city to better understand the period of your life you are writing about. Note details you can incorporate into your story. Sit down and write a vignette that either incorporates new data or is inspired by the use of particular data that you are drawing from your Memory List.
November 16: Go to a museum that features a topic that is prominent in understanding your time frame. (For example, if your story is about serving in the military, visit a military museum.) Note details you can incorporate into your story. Write or rewrite a story as soon as possible—preferably that day.
November 17: Today sit down with your Memory List and write as long as you can on as many items on it as possible.
November 18: Visualize yourself at a certain time in your memoir. In your mind, scrutinize the scene that comes to mind. Who is there? What are they doing? What details are clear to you? Incorporate as much as you can into your lifestory writing today.
November 19: Print out on white paper the stories you have written and place them in a three-ring binder. Reread your vignettes. Are there linking stories missing? Take a colored paper and write the topic of the missing story (stories) on it. Write development notes on this colored paper. Write a missing story.
November 20: Read a story you have written. Go through it with a magic marker. Highlight all general descriptions. Nice plan, great day, wonderful dress, etc. Now replace general descriptions with specific words: effective, step-by-step plan; a day filled with play and rest and much intimate conversation; a peau-de-soie dress with a knee-length hem. Using specific words, write a story inspired from you Memory List.
November 21: Ask someone to read an excerpt of your memoir out loud. You are now the audience. How complete and satisfying does the story sound to you? Take notes on what you feel may be missing. Request the reader to ask you questions about the reading excerpt. Rewrite your story if necessary to make it clearer. Do so as soon as possible. This can be a learning exercise in being sensitive to the qualities of what makes an effective editor.
November 22: If you don’t have enough photos for your memoir, explore web-based photo repositories for appropriate photos. Write new stories stimulated by those photographs.
November 23: Sit down with your Memory List and write as long as you can on as many items on it as possible. Alternately, write a story noted on a colored paper in your three-ring binder.
November 24: A memoir depicts a hero’s journey. There is a problem that you have resolved (or not) and that trajectory provides the core of your memoir. The crisis of the memoir is when you are about to crumble under the stress and tension of the problem. The problem then usually has a moment when the main character (you) was able to step into the future. This is the turning point. Write or rewrite a story about the crisis and the turning point. Repeat this exercise for s many stories as is feasible. (Some stories are merely transition stories and do not call for problem solving.)
November 25: Reread stories that take place early in your memoir’s timeline. Introduce phrases and sentences that generate foreshadowing and suspense. “Little did I know then that…” “What if I could not sustain this level of attention…?” This is an effective tool in creating interest. (This is also a dangerous tool that risks slipping into cliché fast.)
November 26: Write the first (introductory, initial) pages of your memoir. These pages should pose a problem, be set at a time when you were completely involved in the problem, and begin at some point close to the ending. For example, if this were a memoir about a divorce, you cannot reasonably start at your first date. (That would be too taxing on the reader!) Instead, you would do better to start in a marriage counseling session when it becomes evident to you that this marriage will have to come to an end. Subsequently, you can utilize flashbacks to provide both information and feeling.
November 27: You have been writing intuitively—creating stories as the unconscious and my notes prompt you. Today, let’s go cerebral: write a time line. Organize your timeline according to values: some events and actions are pivotal; others are supportive and flow from other decisions. The pivotal events and actions are your chapter headings while the supportive material is part of the chapter. Write stories that are still missing.
November 28: Go through your stories and introduce direct dialog. “He said he would not come” is indirect dialog. It can be changed to direct dialog “He said, ‘I will come’.” Many adjectives can be changed into dialog. “She was angry” can become “Don’t you ever speak to me in that tone again or I’ll knock you down. I don’t care where we are!”
November 29: Go through your stories and change descriptions into actions. “She was angry” can become “She picked a plate up from the dish rack and flung it across the room. The plate crashed against the door, inches from my head. Rework as many stories as you can.
November 30: Set up a schedule to either finishes the first draft or begin the second (polishing up) draft. In the time remaining, keep writing.
About the Author
Denis Ledoux is an author and teacher has been helping people to write personal and family stories since 1988. Creator of November is Lifewriting Month, he offers many free products and tele-classes to better celebrate the month of November. For a listing of the free offerings, visit http://www.turningmemories.com/novemberislifewritingmonth.html. While there, navigate through the site to see what else he offers.
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