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How You Know When the Time Is Right To Write a Memoir

Choosing to write a memoir is no small decision. How do you know when the time is right for you? Here, author Peter Quinn shares how to know when to write a memoir.

We carry the past with us like a book. Whether we open it or not, it doesn’t go away. Wounds that heal or not, moments of grace and humor and humiliation, are with us until the end. We never get over them because, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

(How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir)

If it’s true, as Faulkner posits, we can never get over the past, we can at least try to understand it. Memoir is an attempt at accounting for who we are. It’s the tale of those we met along the road, those we either loved or loathed, or treasured or discounted, the incidents and accidents whose impact has never gone away.

There’s no universal right time for writing a memoir. Some people decide to write a memoir, others are driven to it. Augustine wrote his Confessions, a chronicle of conversion that may rightly be called history’s first memoir, when he was in his 40s. He lived into his 70s. Ruined by a financial scandal and dying of throat cancer, U.S. Grant wrote his Personal Memoirs in his 60s to provide for his family.

A memoir is different from an autobiography which offers a chronological accounting of a life that strives for completeness and objectivity. As the word implies, a memoir is rooted in memory. It’s not fiction but an exercise in the subtlety of self-exploration, an accounting that stakes no claim on objectivity. It is a dive into the emotional depths of perception and experience.

Memoirs can cover an entire life or part of one. Frank McCourt’s memoir extended across three books. A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s moving account of loss and heartbreak, covers 12 months. Henry Davis Thoreau’s Walden is a personal account of a year spent in the woods outside Boston.

Memoirs can be tragic or comic, sometimes both. Comedian Molly Shannon’s memoir, Hello, Molly, is a story of shattering loss and enduring resilience. At once candid and funny, devoid of self-pity and filled with empathy, it is a reminder that a memoir can deal with life-altering trauma but never slip into the morose or morbid.

How You Know When the Time Is Right To Write a Memoir

If there are no rules for when or how to write a memoir, in my experience there are some helpful cues for taking the plunge. First, have something worth saying. A memoir isn’t a diary. Rather than a day-to-day record, it seeks to go beneath surfaces and bring to light the subtle motivations that explain but not excuse the hurt we’ve sometimes inflicted and the happiness we’ve been gifted with or found for ourselves.

In the process of writing about ourselves, we can often recall what we thought we forgot or deliberately buried. Maybe it’s a childhood incident or a shattering love affair, or a humiliating failure pushed into the corners of our minds. If you’re willing to tell the truth about yourself and risk self-exposure, you’re ready to write your memoir.

The deepest depository of the self is in the subconscious. Nothing escapes it. It makes its presence known in our dreams but resists exposure to daylight. A memoir is a dive into that murky underworld. It’s the moment when we not only face ourselves but dare share the truth with the world. For better or worse, it can be filled with surprises.

All writing is work. Writing a memoir is no exception. It involves sitting alone for hours at a time, writing, rewriting, and editing, putting in the effort to create a narrative that earns and deserves a reader’s time and attention. The magic is in the telling, and the telling requires what one author described as “facing the terror of the blank page.”

If you’re ready to undertake the often-frustrating challenge of learning or teaching yourself the craft of writing, to take on time-consuming work that can extend across months and sometimes years, you’re ready to write your memoir.

How You Know When the Time Is Right To Write a Memoir

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In my own case, I never planned to write a memoir. During my career, I penned speeches, novels, essays, and op-ed pieces, but never gave thought to a memoir. I started another novel—my fifth—when I hit a wall. With no ultimate purpose in mind, I jotted random notes on what led me to try to become a professional writer, and what I found when I got there.

At first, I was held back from offering a full accounting by the fear that people I valued would feel I was violating their privacy. I worried as well that those I was at odds with would develop a deeper animus.

Some I included are now dead. I hesitated writing about them. It brought to mind the Latin adage: De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. (“Of the dead say nothing but good.”) But the more I wrote, the fewer my qualms. A memoir is part confession, part treason. When you’re ready to risk hurt feelings, you’re ready to write your memoir.

Said Samuel Johnson, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind most wonderfully.” The strange interlude of the pandemic and its intimations of mortality provided a motive for me to write Cross Bronx: A Writing Life.

In a moment of upended expectations and fear-prone uncertainty, I found the time and the inspiration to tell my story.

Grammar and Mechanics

Do you remember the difference between the 8 parts of speech and how to use them? Are you comfortable with punctuation and mechanics? No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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