Health & Wellness

The Story of Your Life

You don’t have to be a writer to create a captivating memoir

By Wendy Haaf

Photo: iStock/Halfpoint.

Sometime after his 60th birthday, Paul Lima of Toronto began reflecting on his life, and as he did, an urge to preserve some of his memories and thoughts in writing slowly grew. “I’ve had kind of a boring life, but I’ve liked it,” he says. “And I thought that if I wrote a memoir but left the boring bits out, it would probably be an engaging book.”

Many retirees share a similar impulse but hesitate due to a lack of confidence. But while Lima has an edge over the average person who wants to shape a story out of his or her life experiences—he’s written professionally for 40 years and his output includes a dozen books, mostly on writing—that kind of background isn’t necessary to create a memoir. Whether you want to leave a written record of significant events in your personal and family history to your kids and grandkids, share hard-won wisdom with a wider audience, or simply try to make sense of how you grew into the person you are, drive and determination are more important than a writing background.

“It’s about the desire to connect,” says Shayma Saadat, a Toronto-area Pakistani-Afghan writer who teaches writing workshops on using food to both mine memories and tell stories, and whose own work focuses on culture and identity. Everyone’s story is important, Saadat maintains, and storytelling is a skill that can be learned with practice. “I find that very empowering,” she says. “Anyone can really do it.”

The question is, if you’re yearning to write a memoir, how do you get started? Here are a few pointers from the pros.

Make a Memory Map

Unlike an autobiography, a memoir isn’t merely a chronological cataloguing of events; it’s a carefully curated series of memories that places a greater emphasis on the writer’s emotions and inner life. Nevertheless, you still need to cast your mind back over the incidents in your past before deciding what to include, and unless you’ve diligently kept journals from childhood onward, you may need a little help recovering some of those jewels from your mental vault. Fortunately, “there are things you can do to help you uncover the richness of your life,” Lima says.

In the class she teaches on memoir through the continuing-studies program at Western University in London, ON, writer and creative writing instructor Mary Anne Colihan uses the following tactic. “One of the first things I ask students to do is to make a timeline of their lives,” she says.

Lima suggests using a similar, less linear technique called clustering, which he outlines extensively in an upcoming book on memoir writing. “It’s also known as mind-mapping,” he says. A method of brainstorming thoughts and ideas without worrying about structure, clustering involves writing a central concept in a circle on a piece of paper, scrawling related thoughts around it, and then drawing lines to show how various ideas are connected. The end result resembles a spider’s web. You could also use index cards—one per scene—adding, shuffling, and rearranging as needed.

“It’s a way of getting into your own head and finding out information,” Lima says. “If someone wants to write a memoir, I would recommend that he or she spend hours if not days examining his or her life in detail and getting it all out on paper.”

Narrow Your Focus

Now cast a discerning eye over the various episodes you’ve committed to paper. “Focus on turning points,” Colihan advises. “What are the highs? What are the lows? Wonderful stories come out of a turning point, where you’ve changed or the people around you have changed—something big has changed as a result.”

Or as Toronto-based memoirist and writing instructor Beth Kaplan puts it, “Imagine that Steven Spielberg is going to make a movie out of your life and he needs the 10 most important scenes that have to be in that movie.” (Kaplan teaches courses on creative non-fiction and memoir-writing through the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, and is the author of True to Life: Fifty Steps to Help You Tell Your Story, (BPS Books, 2014).) Maybe one of these vignettes tells the story of the moment you met the person who would become your life partner, or of the birth of your first child, or explores a comment from a parent that shifted your view of the world—you’re looking for events that affected you profoundly in some way.

From here, search for a theme, a story arc, or an aspect of your life that you’d like to highlight. It doesn’t necessarily have to be weighty or earth-shattering. Lima’s theme, for example, is the fact that many of the meaningful occurrences in his life have been accidental.

And the time-focus can be as narrow as a few years or even just a few emotionally charged hours. Kaplan’s memoir All My Loving: Coming Of Age With Paul McCartney in Paris covers the pivotal period of 1964–1965, while “In the Kitchen With Grandma,” a prize-winning post for the blog Bon Appétempt, recounts a four-day marathon baking session during which the author and her mother learned the secrets of turning out hundreds of pizzelle cookies and cream-stuffed croissants for the holidays from their 92-year-old matriarch in her quirky Pittsburgh kitchen.

“You need to decide what you’re going to focus on, because a memoir needs focus,” Lima says. According to Marion Roach Smith, the author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life (Grand Central Books, 2011), you should be able to boil this idea down to a single sentence. As you go deeper into the process, you may find that focus sharpening—or shifting entirely, as it did in Lima’s case.

Flesh Out Key Incidents

Once her students have identified key scenes, Colihan asks them to make sheets of notes for each, answering questions such as, “What do you remember? How did it impact you? What changed? What was the outcome?” she says. Browsing through family photos and scrapbooks from the period in question may help shake loose more details.

Jump Right In

You don’t have to start on page one, paragraph one—just pick a memory and dive in.

“Many people are very intimidated by writing,” Kaplan observes. “A lot of that comes from high school, maybe from having been criticized by a harsh teacher or somebody who taught you that good writing had to be a certain way, so many people feel they can’t start until they know exactly what the story is, where it starts, and where it ends.” It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you do.

Embrace the Mess

As any professional writer can attest, writing is a messy process, and pausing to ponder correct spelling or punctuation—or editing as you go—slows it to a crawl and likely interferes with creativity by interrupting the flow of thoughts and ideas. Con-sequently, when penning a first draft (or what Smith colourfully calls the vomit draft), experts recommend letting the words fly from your fingertips. In her class, Colihan has students do timed speed sprints of 15 to 20 minutes. “Just write your guts out,” she says. “Anything—just go, go, go.”

Engage Your Senses

Our senses—particularly smell—can be powerful tools for triggering waves of memory and emotion. Maybe the scent of spiced cider wafting from the stove transports you back to cozy winter afternoons in your childhood home, or a whiff of rum unleashes the queasiness and shame of your first hangover. So when you’re disgorging the vomit draft of a scene, “think about what you’re seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting,” Colihan advises. “What was your mother’s perfume like? Or the smell of your father’s cigar?” In later versions, a few carefully selected details like these can also help pull the reader into your world.

If a particular scene is linked with food, so much the better. Toronto-area writer Shayma Saadat has her pupils use reminiscences about food as a kind of personal time machine, in part because of its sensory qualities. “Food has a way of distilling your memories, particularly those related to your childhood,” she says. “Whether it’s the aroma or even hearing the sizzle in the pan, it evokes some kind of memory.” One exercise Saadat does with students is to provide a food word—such as egg—and have them write whatever comes to mind.

Particular dishes are also closely tied to our feelings (for many of us, cooking really is a way of expressing love), as well as to our family (the leaden angel food cake Aunt Lily insisted on baking for every celebration, for example), culture, and even particular eras in our past, all of which help make us who we are. And it needn’t be a culinary masterpiece to provoke an effect: for instance, for Saadat, who grew up eating almost exclusively cooked-from-scratch Pakistani fare, Rice-A-Roni was a rare and exotic treat reserved for occasions when she could coax a babysitter into preparing it with her.

“Food has allowed me to tell the story of my people, and of my heritage and culture,” Saadat says. The universality of cooking, sharing meals, and getting together with family can serve as a tool to bridge disparate backgrounds and strike a chord with readers, too. “A friend of mine, who is of Jewish-Canadian descent, said, ‘You wrote about mango trees and your cousins in Pakistan, and I’ve never been there or eaten that food, but I could relate to what you were saying,’” Saadat says.

Don’t Omit the Truth 

“People sometimes feel guilty telling the truth about their family, or they feel that they shouldn’t betray family secrets,” Kaplan says, whether it’s Grandpa’s bipolar disorder or a brother’s alcoholism. But while it’s probably true that not all of your near and dear ones will rejoice when they hear you’re writing a memoir, “it’s very important to get the truth out into the air,” Kaplan says. It may help to remember that each of your siblings and parents will have a different, equally valid take on the clan you grew up in. And you can always opt to cut something out later.

“The fact is that every family has something unpleasant or wrong,” Kaplan continues, “and that’s part of what makes life, and writing, interesting. Everything sweetness and light is not interesting. No family is all dark and no family is all pink. What brings a story to life is telling the truth using a variety of colours.”

Learn Some Craft

If you plan on eventually sharing your memoir with others, you should learn some of the techniques for telling a story so that it’s not just understandable, but also resonates with the reader. One way of doing so is to read a broad selection of memoirs and personal essays.

“If you want an idea of how to shape impactful stories, have a look at how good writers have done it,” Colihan says. “You don’t even have to buy a book—there are short essays online that are brilliant.” One resource Kaplan recommends is Brevity (, an online magazine featuring non-fiction pieces that are a maximum of 750 words long.

You can also learn some craft—and connect with and draw inspiration from other writers—by taking a class or workshop, joining a writer’s group, attending writing conferences (such as the one held by the Creative Non-Fiction Collective Society), or even working with a professional editor or coach.

And if you can’t or don’t want to do any of these things but you’re still serious about telling your story, “just do it,” Kaplan urges. “Just write. It’s something that can be done at any age.

What Can Memoirs Do?

Uniquely human, stories aren’t always mere entertainment: they can be a powerful force for good in our lives, and memoirs are no exception. Here are just three examples of what memoirs can do.

Foster resilience in children. Do you want your grandkids to grow into confident, competent adults? Sharing stories of your family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs may help. A 2001 study found that the more children knew about their family history, the higher were their self-esteem and sense of control over their lives. When followed up after the September 11 terrorist attacks, kids who knew more about their family history were better able to moderate the effects of stress, thanks to their sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. The healthiest narratives were those that included ups and downs—with an emphasis on families sticking together through good times and bad.

Reshape unhealthy beliefs. Narrative therapists specialize in helping people examine and rewrite problematic stories they tell themselves about themselves, their families, relationships, and the world around them—and by so doing, change unhealthy patterns and behaviours. Typically one of these stories is more dominant than the others—for example, believing you’re lazy because that’s what you were told repeatedly as a child. One of the things narrative therapy—and writing about your life in general—can do is to allow you to view your problems, behaviour, and beliefs more objectively.

Make us feel less alone. In her essay, “Why We Need Memoir,” psychologist and memoirist Liz Scott writes that, by allowing us to share an author’s despair, grief, sorrow, and nostalgia, memoirs reflect our own inner experiences back to us and remind us that we are all part of the same human family. “In this world, and our country, where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large,” she says, “writers who tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift,” and that makes us feel less alone.