Forgetting your memories (Mistake #123)

I’m late to it, but this article from the Wall Street Journal is a strong and satisfying argument for writing your memoir — even if nobody ever reads it.

Penning your memoir can help you make sense of your character and your life and come to terms with difficult past events, the article argues; it can also form a valuable legacy to your children and grand-children.

Whenever someone approaches me for advice about writing memoir or a full autobiography, I always point out at first, as gently as possible, that book-length memoirs are extremely difficult to sell — unless you are a well-known figure, or have undergone a truly extraordinary unique experience or life.

But I always quickly add that the project can prove valuable in so many other ways. It can help to develop your writing, your thoughts and your style, and enhance your memory for past events, and — most importantly, I think — provide plenty of ideas for future articles, or other snippets, such as letters and fillers.

You can work on it concurrently with other projects. Stuck on your novel or another piece of work? Turn back to your autobiography: you may find it helps you out of a stubborn bout of writers’ block, and can act as an ongoing work in progress when you need a break from other stuff.

It’s not without risk or problems. Recollecting difficult past experiences could be upsetting. It could reignite feelings of anger or upset which you feel you may have left behind or ‘got over’. What is life without risk? Without risk, life is safe. Whether you want to slip out of your safety zone to write about you — all about you — is a decision that only you can make.

Write as if nobody is looking, or will ever be looking. That will be the most honest experience, and perhaps the most rewarding and constructive. Self-censorship can be frustrating and tie you up in knots. Let it all out. You can always edit at a later date. You can always select which bits you share, and which bits you don’t, and with whom, if anyone.

Constructing the narrative of your life — or a part of your life — could help you to get a better feel of how to construct a fictional narrative, be it novel, screenplay or other form of story-telling.

Need memory joggers? Reread your old diaries, if you have them. Reread books you first read during periods you’re trying to recall. Revisit old photographs, old scrapbooks, old school books. Speak to people who have been in your life for a long time, about any shared experience which you don’t normally discuss or have forgotten. Retrace a route you used to take on your way home from school, or the bus trip to your first place of work, or the first drive you took alone after passing your driving test.

Perhaps start with a memorably happy event. Perhaps start with the most important thing that has ever happened in your life.

Perhaps don’t start with your birth!

You may eventually find the basis of a strong first-person essay somewhere in your autobiographical writings. They aren’t too numerous, but occasional non-fiction writing competitions particularly open to memoir occasionally crop up. You may find some which appeal at our Writing Competitions page.

What you will find is that your life is rich with ideas, which you can use as springboards to launch you into many other projects.

Comments 4

  • Remembering the senses is so important with memoir. Memoirs are an important record of social history, and although many history books record the facts, they don’t always record the real-life experiences of the time: what aromas can you remember from when you used to play out in the garden (not only does it bring the writing to life, but it’s also a reminder of the plants and flowers that were ‘in vogue’ at the time), what sounds could you hear, what did it feel like?

    Social history is so important, and you never know what might happen – after all, I bet when Jennifer Worth wrote her memoirs she never imagined they’d be turned into a BBC television series!

  • ‘Penning your memoir can help you make sense of your character and your life and come to terms with difficult past events’

    Wow, so true, I have just discovered through sort of writing my memoir.

    • Great to hear, Cliff. Hope the benefits continue as time moves on — both creatively and emotionally. Very best, Alex.

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