Vignettes and a Timeline

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Unlike an autobiography, a memoir doesn’t have to start with the date of your birth, the location, and a cast of characters present at the time.

A memoir can focus on any event in your life, and include as many or as few events as you deem necessary.

A timeline is a way to chart the turning points in your life. Creating a timeline will allow you to see how the stories fit into linear time, how your story coincides with other events in your family’s life or in the world. From a turning point, you can move forward or backward in your life, and relate to things that had passed or were to come.

Don’t try to write your memoir from beginning to end initially. If you choose to create your memoir linearly at a later point, that’s fine. But when you first start, I suggest you write “vignettes,” little stories of your life. These can be major turning points, such as a time when you moved, or graduation, or marriage, etc., or they can be simple moments in time that stick in your memory: a sunset or the time you first counted to one hundred or when you finally understood the meaning of a word.

I cannot tell you what turning points you must write about, but our memories abound with memory-moments that are unique to each of us. Write these moments, in no particular order. Just get the moments on paper, or computer. Later, you can arrange these vignettes in a meaningful manner, but at the beginning, just get them written. And then record each moment on your timeline.

This might not seem important initially, but as the vignettes begin to add up, and you chart them on your timeline, you might begin to see a framework for your life story. A way to organize. A theme.

Each memoir has a focal point, a theme that becomes the unifying force in the book. You might think you know what that focal point is when you begin. Or you might have no idea. But by writing vignettes, and charting them on the timeline, I guarantee you will open yourself to some surprises.

Inventing the Truth

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If you are planning to write your memoirs, I can highly recommend several books for you to read, on writing memoirs.

One of my favorites is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, a renowned writer, journalist, literary critic, and teacher. The book is a collection of essays by Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Alfred Kazin, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Eileen Simpson, many of whom you will recognize by name.

This isn’t just a how-to book; those abound. Rather, this is a book about their discoveries and how they came to write their now-famous books:

  • Russell Baker explains why his first draft of Growing Up was a disaster.
  • Frank McCourt reveals how he finally learned from his students how to write Angela’s Ashes at the age of sixty-four.
  • Annie Dillard notes how writing An American Childhood made her confront the memoirist’s central dilemma: what to put in and what to leave out.

This book is indispensable for anyone writing a memoir.

As you read this book, I welcome you to visit this site, to learn more about writing memoirs.

When the moment comes when you need an editor, I will be here, ready to help.

Bon Voyage!