where the writers are
Learn to Write a Short Memoir Draft in One Month

Many people say it’s impossible to write a memoir in a month. Yet, last year, Denis Ledoux, founder or November is Lifewriting Month, provided those writing memoir as their Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN) Challenge with a schedule to accomplish this feat in 30-days. And some participants did, indeed, write the first draft of a memoir by the end of the challenge.

This year, for Day #5 of National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo), Denis provides the first of three posts written by my guest bloggers on memoir writing. If you write this type of nonfiction, you’ll love the specific tool he offers, which is meant to help you write the first draft of a short memoir. It’s perfect for the WNFIN Challenge! ~Nina Amir

Write the Draft of a Short Memoir in One Month

By Denis Ledoux

While memoirs are often lengthy and encompass an entire lifetime and so take years to write, it is also possible to produce a draft of a short memoir in one month.

By definition, an autobiography is a story of one’s entire life and a memoir is a story of a period or topic (theme) of one’s life: e.g., starting and growing my business, taking care of my aging parents, coming to terms with my divorce, etc. A memoir can also consist of snippets of life. So…

Keep in mind that I am thinking of a short memoir here not a comprehensive autobiography.

What Ought A Short Memoir Be About?

Start the month by selecting a memoir topic that is important to you. That may seem a no-brainer, but I have witnessed many people write not about their important material but about the material they deem easy to write about or “more interesting.” Inevitably, because they do not access the energy of their inner self that is yearning to be heard, they slip into “the writer’s block,” into a failure of energy.

You will write well and voluminously if you are motivated by your interest in the subject matter. Choose a topic that you are viscerally interested to share.

A Best Tool: “The Core Memory List.”

1. A core memory list contains only those items or highlights which are most important to you in the period (or about the topic) that is your subject. These are the events, relationships, settings, people, feelings without which, in the context of your subject, you would not today be who you are.

For instance, for me, the core list of a memoir of my high school years was limited to:

  • my relationship with my teachers.
  • friendships.
  • my evolving attachment to some of my studies.
  • the role of religion in my life.

At this point in the process, I was still in the pre-writing stage—as you should be. I was getting the material for my stories organized so that, when I sit down to write, the writing will come easily. In addition, I will be helped by having selected the most important of my high-school experiences to write about.

The point at this early stage of lifewriting is to begin the process of understanding what happened in your life. As you try to understand, and eventually to write, the broader picture, you will find this work of paring down the memories of a time/topic into its core memory list to be very valuable in creating a focus.

As you try to understand, and eventually to write, the broader picture, you will find this work of paring down the memories of a time/topic into its core memory list to be very valuable in creating a focus.

2. A core memory list helps you to start writing. It will be especially important to you as you commit to writing a memoir draft in a month because, when you sit to write and find yourself staring at a blank or screen, your core memory list will suggest to you what to write about. No more writer’s block!

3. Under each of your core memories, create a sub core list. In my high school list, I wrote memories about the most important of my teachers (those who were most formative for me). Here I made notes of their teaching philosophy, their style, etc. I looked for similarities between the different teachers to see if I can understand something about my own needs at that time.

I also wrote about the various subjects: about why they interested me or not, about the influence of the subject on me, etc.

4. A core memory list assures that you are undertaking your most important stories first. If, for whatever reason, you do not finish writing all your stories, you will not be left with a number of insignificant ones instead of the pivotal ones you had intended to record. Once you have preserved the highlight experiences of your short memoir, then you can turn to writing others as you have the time. (I have had several clients who died while writing long memoirs and so never finished them.)

5. Not only will your core memory list suggest the parameters of your topic and thus create economy in writing, but the sub lists will also help you to fill out each of your core stories. When you cluster memories under core headings, you easily know such details as who was there, what the place looked like, what was going on in your life before and after the memory list item, etc.

Essentially, because you’ve done extensive pre-writing in the first days of your month-long memoir project, you will find that the actual writing is a breeze.

Remember: “Yard by yard, it’s hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch!”

Exercise: The Core Memory List.

  • In order to compile your core memory list, select no more than ten items. Ten is large enough to make this list somewhat comprehensive. It is also small enough to force you to make decisions about the importance of each item. (You ought not to have more than ten core items but you may have fewer.)
  • Place your core memory list in your three-ring memoir-writing binder. This makes the task of reviewing your list easy.

About the Author

Denis Ledoux has been helping people write personal and family stories since 1988. Every November, he presents November is Lifewriting Month which is available free to the public. NILM offerings includes tele-classes, MP3s, writing prompts, and short memoir-writing courses. For information or to register, click here.

To learn more about WNFIN/NaNonFiWriMo, click here. To take the WNFIN challenge, click here to register. You’ll be taken to a forum where you can “sign in” and introduce yourself and your project.