Small Steps for Writing a Memoir


Three weeks ago I started an intermediate level creative writing course and I must say I am really happy with my decision. Every week I have a short story to write as homework and that pushes me into exploring my imagination. I’ve always thought of myself as being better at non fiction, but fiction is starting to grow on me. Each week I feel less scared about the immensity of the thought of writing a novel.

Tonight, while browsing the net, I came across an interesting article written by William Zinsser about how to write a memoir. Zinsser is one of my favourite writers.  The first book I read by him was “On Writing Well”. It was given to me by a very lovely lady whom I admire and respect and who happened to be my boss at the time. The book was her farewell gift before moving back to the States. Her gesture meant the world to me, as the book, which first belonged to her, has great sentimental value.

So I was very happy to stumble on Zinsser’s article about writing a memoir. I especially loved his last piece of advice:

“As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.”

It made me think about how well this piece of advise goes for real life. We are scared of big tasks, major plans that seem impossible to achieve. Some of us would like to write a novel, compose a symphony, or climb the Kilimanjaro. But we become nervous and don’t know where to start and the idea of what such a project encompasses scares the hell out of us. How many times haven’t we used “I wish I was …” and then just left it at that. Most of the times the reason is fear, sheer panic. So, the secret seems to be in the small steps Zinsser is talking about.

You can read the entire article here. Zinsser writes a weekly post in the same magazine – The American Scholar.

Related Posts
I looked for us in Camden Town
His Eyes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *