The Five Little Secrets of Memoir Writing: A Contrarian POV

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A memoir can be a massive undertaking. As writers, we sometimes take pride in this complexity. It makes us seem, well, more professional. It can also alienate us from real people. And real people have stories to tell. Very real stories. So it becomes important that we set aside our biases and perhaps a little of our pride. Life is a commonwealth of experiences shared by all. Here are five little secrets that can help get us to that understanding.

1. You’ve lived an interesting life.

Everyone has a story to tell. I remember tuning into a CBC Radio half-hour interview about a parrot. A parrot? I scoffed until I realized the first 15 minutes had passed in a very interesting way. And the parrot hadn’t even spoken yet! To reframe this experience, it is my contention that everything in life is interesting. That means all of us live interesting lives. How many times have I had to convince potential students that this is the truth? They live in this crazy world, they are still alive, and that means they are survivors. The logical follow-up is this. Where there is survival, there is courage, and where there is courage, there’s a story—their story. Very soon they begin to see themselves in a new light. A memoir now seems like a very good idea.

2. Why are you writing your story?

Hopefully not for fame and fortune. Even a bestseller might not get you that. You might be writing with the hope of finding clarity in your life—making sense of it all. Maybe life took you on an unexpected journey—aren’t they all—and writing your stories down can be a cathartic form of life recalibration. You hope to find out where it went off the rails, and maybe see it from a new and more time-tested perspective. Maybe you just want to see it all on paper. Your life becomes more real to you.

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3. Who are you writing it for?

Every memoirist secretly hopes that their story will become the Great American Memoir, if there could be such a thing. My Life, by John Doe, at #1. A literary agent will quickly disabuse them of that belief. In fact the majority of memoir writers will never have an agent. They will be writing primarily for their children, grandchildren, and maybe, their community. It will be nothing less than a labor of love and a legacy to those in their family circle. This should be celebrated.

4. You don’t have to be a professional writer.

Okay, this really opens it up to every wanna-be out there who now knows he or she is a survivor and therefore has a story to tell. Here’s what I tell prospective students: “If you have ever written a high school essay, you can write your life story.” After the expected amount of silence, I continue, “And what about your style, your point of view, and your mythical journey?” I let them ponder a moment and then add, “Fear not, fellow writers. In this class, you will write as you speak, naturally and with ease. We’ll remove the ums and ahs later and I promise never to bring up the mythical journey thing.“

5. This is how you do it.

Forget grammar. You can clean it up while editing, Forget narrative arc. Forget POV. You are writing for your family and friends. Your stories will be simple and to the point. In my classes, I use Legacy Themes, all based on a process called Guided Autobiography. These include several life themes: our families, the work we do, the way we see ourselves and others, our spiritual beliefs, our achievements, our goals, our travels, our cultural heritage, in fact there are dozens to choose from. My students write short 2-3 page stories on each of these. That’s it. Best of all, you never start at the beginning of your life. That would be boring to write—and to read. Instead, you jump in at a defining moment—and we have many of these. The result will be a story covering all key aspects of a life well lived. Later some of you will expand on the themes, resulting in a manuscript-sized project. Mission accomplished. Best of all, you will be giving the gift of your wisdom to your loved ones. What greater legacy could there be?

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Richard Campbell runs his own life-story writing business in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. As co-author of Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story, published by Writer’s Digest Books, he teaches these concepts to students around North America. He also offers enrichment classes on life-story writing with a major cruise line on their transatlantic crossings. There are no stops along the way and no reliable internet so he gets a captive audience every time. Richard can be reached through his website,

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