Tips for Writing Memoir – Simply Step Back and Witness Your Own Life

Most people have experienced things that make them cringe when  they recall them. I know that I have some terrible memories, and for many years, I tried to write about those memories, but when I initially began writing about my past, I wanted to whine and I wanted to bash my tormentors. Initially, my memory writing was angry and self-absorbing. The more that I stirred my pity pot, the thicker that the mush got, and like quicksand, the darkness of my memories would begin to suck me deep into some bottomless pit. Fortunately, I have been able to walk away from that place, and I have reached a time that my writing about my past has alchemized.

For the past several months, I have been teaching a bricks and mortar class in Memoir Writing, and on the first day, I told my students that a memoir is not the same thing as an autobiography. An autobiography is a fairly chronological and straightforward overview of a person’s history. It tells when a person was born and where he lived when and what he did. In an autobiography, the writer does not reflect on the events of his life. He merely states them. A memoir is not told in straightforward, chronological fashion, and it is much more of a reflection upon one’s life than it is a telling of its historical events–one date at a time.

People have written autobiography for years. For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would want to read “Just the Facts” of someone’s life. Perhaps that would be good for a 5th grader’s history report, but a sterile recitation of dates does not interest me. By the same token, there is something unattractive about a writer’s wallowing around in his own self-pity.  I believe that it is safe to say that a Memoir is not a Tell-All and yet, it is much more than a statement of sterilized facts. No doubt, a memoir writer’s first job is to decide what he will and will not write about his life, and his second job is to find some way to frame the emotional realness of the substance of his life in a way that his story does not become a pitiful plea for sympathy.



In an interview with William Zinsser, Russell Baker, the columnist for the New York Times and the author of Growing Up said the following:

The autobiographer’s problem is that he knows too much–he knows the whole iceberg, not just the tip.

William Zinsser added that the memoirist has a crucial need to distil. “But selectivity will not solve the problem, as Baker discovered when he wrote the first draft of Growing Up, using the reflexes of a lifelong journalist. What he [initially] wrote was a ‘reporter’s book,’ recreating the Depression after interviewing his older relatives who lived through it. What he left out, with a reporter’s propriety, was his mother and himself–in short, the story. That disastrous first version, he saw, not only had to be rewritten from scratch; his life had to be reinvented.” Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth, p. 15.

” Russell Baker is the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner for Distinguished Commentary and a columnist for The New York Times. This book traces his youth in the mountains of rural Virginia.

“When Baker was only five, his father died. His mother, strong-willed and matriarchal, never looked back. After all, she had three children to raise.

“These were depression years, and Mrs. Baker moved her fledgling family to Baltimore. Baker’s mother was determined her children would succeed, and we know her regimen worked for Russell. He did everything from delivering papers to hustling subscriptions for the Saturday Evening Post. As is often the case, early hardships made the man. ” Amazon


Zinsser continued his discussion of the memoirist’s need to distil the events of his life:

“Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was completing her memoir, An American Childhood, which was about what it feels like to wake up and notice that you’ve been ‘set down in a going world.’ Situating her Pittsburgh girlhood in the larger framework of the American landscape, ‘the vast setting of our common history,’ she also wrestled, as Baker did, with the problem of what to put in and what t o leave out. ‘I’ve learned all sort of things, quite inadvertently, about myself and various relationships.’ But some of those things were learned far from the locale she had chosen for her story–in Wyoming, for instance, where she spent one summer as a teenager. ‘I keep the action in Pittsburgh. I see no reason to drag everybody off to Wyoming just because I want to tell them about my vacation. You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting.” Zinsser, Inventing the Truth, pgs. 15 – 16.

” A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.” Amazon








“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the story of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see. What she sees are astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

Her personal narrative highlights one year’s exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall, she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays King of the Meadow with a field of grasshoppers. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons.”


Zinsser says the following about Kazin:

“Memoir was the door that Kazin says he walked through to claim his American birthright, reading books such as The Education of Henry Adams, Thoreau’s Walde and his journals, Emerson’s journals and essays, and Walt Whitman’ Civil War diary Specimen Days. What struck Kazin was how personal those early writers were; they used the most intimate literary forms to place themselves in the fabric of American history. Their books brought Kazin the news that was to shape his life: ‘One could be a writer without writing a novel.  Every taxi driver and bartender who told yo his story wanted to be a novelist, it was the big thing in American.’ ” Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth, pgs. 16-17.

 ” Kazin’s memorable description of his life as a young man as he makes the journey from Brooklyn to ‘americanca’-the larger world that begins at the other end of the subway in Manhattan. A classic portrayal of the Jewish immigrant culture of the 1930s. Drawings by Marvin Bileck.” Amazon







“Ian Frazier represents all the writers who inherit a vast hoard of family papers and mementos going back many generatoins and wonder  how to even begin to weed it all out and shape it into a coherent story. Frazier started Family after his parents died within a year of each other, leaving an apartment in Ohio in which nothing had been thrown away. ‘Objects suggest narrative,’ Frazier says, and for two and a half years he dug like a paleontologist through his parents’ hundreds of letters and artifacts–old neckties and purses and theater programs and Navy ID cards– to ‘infer the culture they came from and its plot’ and thereby give meaning to their lives. ” Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth, p. 19.

With wit and an unerring eye for detail, acclaimed author Ian Frazier takes readers on a journey through his family’s story, his nation’s history, and himself

Using letters and other family documents, Frazier reconstructs two hundred years of middle-class life, visiting small towns his ancestors lived in, reading books they read, and discovering the larger forces of history that affected them. He observes some of them during the British raid on Danbury, Connecticut, in the Revolutionary War; he follows others west as they pioneer in the wilderness of Ohio and Indiana; he visits the battlefields where they fought the Civil War. Frazier interviews old-timers, uncles, aunts, cousins, maids, and a beer-store owner who knew his dad. He pursues the family saga in aspect from trivial to grand, hoping for “a meaning that would defeat death.”

Family is a poetic epic of facts, a chronicle of Protestant culture’s rise and fall, a memorial, and a revised view of American history as romantic as it is cold-eyed.

“Mr. Frazier, in this remarkable history of an unremarkable family, plays both roles, the gossip and the pedant, balances skillfully, then adds his own insights as a loyal family member.” ―David Willis McCullough, The New York Times Book Review Amazon

From Publishers Weekly

Simpson here examines orphanhood, her own and within the culture. The author (The Maze, etc.), who early on lost both parents, describes how she grew up believing herself relatively untouched by the deprivation. Later the loss of her husband prompted recollections of her pastthe custody fight involving her and her sister; the time they spent in a New York convent school as unwitting orphan which leads to the catharsis of rage and the admission of acceptance. The second part of the book comprises a history of orphanhood that discusses the role of orphans in history, literature and film. In the interweaving of the two parts, Simpson records the anguish of “all who have been improperly born, or who, with or without parents, feel orphaned.” This is a sensitive, illuminating exploration of a many-sided subject.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Zinsser discusses the very emotional struggle that Eileen Simpson had with her writing of the book Orphans.
“Eileen Simpson represents all the memoir writers who incur what they know will be considerable pain to repossess their past….To write Orphans, a memoir that recalls her upbringing without parents, she did historical research on orphanhood that became so traumatic and she abandoned the book several times….What saved he in all three [of her] books was the knowledge, learned in her separate career as a psychotherapist, that eh past is best confronted–a good lesson for all memoir writers apprehensive about opening Pandora’s box.” Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth, p. 18.
All of the essays included in Zinsser’s collection of essays are excellent, but it is in the Introduction that I read several points that are significant for memoir writers.
  • Memoir writers must distil the events of their lives and select what is best for their memoir.
  • Memoir writers must get personal and they must examine more than the superficial stuff of their lives.
  • Memoir writers need to examine the artifacts of their lives, as well as their memories.
  • Memoir writing can be painful, but the pain requires to examine one’s past is worthwhile.


Like Eileen Simpson, for years, the ghosts of my own past scared me away from telling my story. For too long, I approached my memoir writing in the wrong way. I believed that I was supposed to jump back into what I perceived to be a bottomless pit of not-so-pleasant memories. and I thought that it was my quest to wrestle to the death the monsters that I believed were still there
What I have learned, however,  is that I’ll never wrestle all of my bad memories to death. And here is the news flash: I don’t want to do that anymore. All of my memories are part of who I am.
When I try to kill one part of myself, I simply allow a section of being  to slip into a simmering pot of sadness or of anger that is always lurking somewhere just below the surface of who I am.  As Faulkner said, “The past is not even past.” Accept that reality. The past will never be totally past, and every person’s best alternative is to learn how to live with one’s past–to bring it out into the open and simply to LIVE with it.
For people who are just beginning to write about their pasts and who are tripping over the memories that are still painful for them, I have a suggestion. When examining your past, step back a bit and simply be a fly on your own wall. Try not to get bogged down in the drama of what happened and what did not happen. I am not suggesting that you become numb about your past, but until your memories are less painful for you, simply step back and try to look at your life objectively. Pretend that you are your own psychotherapist and step away from your own couch. Objectively witness your own life. Take notes. And then write.
©Jacki Kellum August 26, 2016


I initially published this on my new blog site that is dedicated to the writing process:



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