Writing a memoir is very different from writing an autobiography. To write an engaging, interesting memoir, you need to know which parts of your life story to focus on and how to best present those moments to your reader. You don’t want to delve into every detail of every memory you have! At Writer’s Relief, we know that the ways you hone your skills for writing a memoir are unlike typical writing prompts and exercises. We’ve created a list of the top 5 writing exercises for memoir writers to help you choose what to include in your story—and what to leave out.
5 Writing Exercises For Memoir Writers
Creating dialogue from memory: You’ll never be able to remember what everyone said word for word, but you should get as close as possible, especially in tone and general meaning. To practice this skill, head to a public place where you can listen to other people. Remember to be respectful and listen to conversations or comments that are readily heard in passing—don’t eavesdrop on people having private discussions. Listen for ten minutes or so, then take a break for at least half an hour and do something else. (This is a great time to get some coffee and a cinnamon roll!) After some time has passed, try to write and recreate the dialogue you heard earlier. You may be surprised to discover it’s more difficult than you expect, especially on your first try!
Determining facts or feelings: A good memoir blends both facts and feelings. To get a clear understanding of each, choose a short memory to write about. First, write only the facts of what happened—don’t include descriptions or emotions. Next, write about the same memory again, but this time focus on how each moment made you feel. The small details are important here: If you remember how an old rug felt on your bare feet and the sense of comfort it gave you, that’s what you should write. When you’re finished, read through both versions of the memory, noting how different they are and where any interesting overlap occurs.
Now write about the memory once again, using the most effective elements from the first two drafts. The result will be a more interesting, engaging retelling of the memory than if you had simply written it all at once. And you’ll have a better understanding of how facts and feelings differ and can affect a story.
Flipping the perspective: Naturally, a memoir of your life will be from your perspective, but a good memoirist is able to consider many perspectives at once. Think of it as being able to see ten different threads of the story, even though you’re only writing one. This overview will help strengthen your own thread. To develop this skill, write one of your memories from another person’s POV. Of course, you won’t know exactly how the other person felt or experienced the memory, but the key is to practice seeing events from other angles. Strengthening this skill will help you see the events in your life from a new perspective.
Setting memorization: Every story needs a setting, and since your memoir is based on actual events, your setting won’t be imaginary—it will be a place you remember. To develop your ability to recall a setting, try this exercise that combines both memory and attention.
Choose a small area and look around for sixty seconds while making a mental note of anything that stands out. What the area looks like and the elements it contains are important, but also notice how it feels. Is it warm? Cold? Busy? Quiet? Is it familiar and comfortable, or strange and confusing? Take in as much sensory information as you can. After about a minute, leave the area and start writing. Describe the setting in as much detail as possible. Bonus points if you can hit all five senses, describe at least three physical objects in the space, and include something about how the setting made you feel.
Following the thread: Memoirs usually revolve around specific, significant events or times in the author’s life. That said, the entire memoir won’t be about that one event only—you have to give your readers some context and work into and out of the story, just like you would with fiction.
To practice finding the threads leading in and out of your main subject matter, think about an important memory. Now, instead of writing about that memory, write about the most significant things you can remember from directly before and directly after it happened. You don’t need to attach these memories to the main, important memory—focus on them as separate events. The changes that happened from one memory to the next either before or after the original memory may give you new insight into the significant memory at the center.
Using these exercises, you’ll improve your memoir-writing skills and tell your story in a way that includes just the right number of details and descriptions to intrigue and engage your readers.
Question: What other writing exercises do you consider particularly useful for memoir writers?