As a septuagenarian and a retiree, I now work with several senior citizen groups, and encourage them to write their memoirs. Even if they never plan to offer their stories as a commercial product (a published book), a memoir can be a beloved and valuable gift for generations to come.
Among the things I share are the following:
1) Facts need not be boring. Do not start with something like this: “I was born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My father was an assembly line worker and my mother was a homemaker. We lived in Philadelphia for four years before we moved to Syracuse, New York.”
The same facts: “When war gripped Europe in 1939, my mother was gripping my father’s hand as she brought me into the world, a middle-class world in Philadelphia. We lived there for four years until a manufacturing firm in Syracuse offered my father more money than he was earning on an assembly line there. Choosing to leave behind his real brothers and the brothers the city boasted about loving, he packed up our Ford and we headed north.”
2) Chronology need not dictate your structure. A sure way to bore your reader is to trace your life year by year. Other themes can incorporate the dates, but afford a more interesting construct. To illustrate: You could outline your life via the things and people that captured your passions, from childhood to grand-parenthood.
3) Syntax should not be repetitive. The worst writers start every sentence the same way. For example: “I was born in 1943. I was an only child in a middle-class home in Philadelphia. I lived there for four years until my father moved our small family to Syracuse, New York.”
4) Minutiae should be avoided. Leroy Hood, a pioneer in systems biology, warned that if we just focus on the smallest details, we will never get the big picture right. Don’t let an accumulation of unimportant facts drag you, your writing, or your reader down. Edit with the big picture constantly in mind.
5) Don’t hesitate to involve your reader. There are many ways to involve your reader—painting a compelling verbal picture, asking a probing question, or challenging your reader to think about a particular issue. And, although he was referring to education, Benjamin Franklin advised, “If you tell me, I will forget. If you teach me, I will remember. But if you involve me, I will learn.” Help your readers learn who you really are.
6) Remember, it’s not all about you. Keep your narrative interesting by making reference to events that were happening in your world and in the larger world at various points in your life. No, you don’t want to write a history book, but it will help your reader understand the context of your earlier years when you allude to national and international events. Those events don’t have to be of monumental historical significance, but can reflect the times culturally, athletically, religiously, medically, etc. For example, “While Frank Sinatra was stealing the hearts of bobby soxers, my own heart was stolen by a gentle girl who lived next door.”
7) Be more active than passive. The general rule good writers use is to have only about 20% of your sentences written in the passive voice. How to identify the passive voice? Any time you see “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” or “were” or any form of “to be” as the main verb in your sentence, you are not using the active voice. Here’s an example: “The identification of the criminal has been enhanced by forensics” is a weak sentence. That’s because there is a form of “to be” in the sentence: “has been.”
To make that sentence stronger, use the active voice: “Forensics have enhanced the identification of the criminal.”
8) “Dense” is not good. Unsophisticated writers don’t understand the importance of simplicity. Having words that are too long, sentences that are too long, and/or paragraphs that are too long will make your writing seem dense. Even that master speech-giver Winston Churchill told us that “big men use little words.” (Big women, too, of course.) Consider the power contained in the second example below. It says the same thing as the first. But, it says it much more forcefully:
It is the opinion of this writer that the implementation of the plan is essential to our neighborhood.
Our neighborhood must implement this plan.
Here’s even more proof: You’ll agree that few people would remember this observation—“Deleterious consequences often ensure from accelerated execution.” But, nearly everyone remembers that “haste makes waste.”
You are the oyster, after all.
Your story is an important one, a story that generations might be reading a hundred years from now. If the pearl truly is the oyster’s autobiography, you will want your pearl to shine for many, many years. Make it as lustrous as possible by following these recommendations.
Dr. Marlene Caroselli is an author, corporate trainer, and keynoter. Her 62nd book, Applying Mr. Albert: 365 Einstein-inspire Brain Boosts, will be published later this year.
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Great article: lots of good tips.
My life isn’t all that interesting except for my involvement with my alcoholic brother. This led to my book, published in KDP, titled “Drunk Like Me.” The advice in this article is right on the mark. I started a chronological structure but got bored quickly. So, instead, I opened at the worst time, when brother Doug was taken by Phoenix EMS to an end-of-the-line facility. The trick then was to go back and forth in time, without losing the reader. I had to fill in the good years when he was successful in business and living the high life. I tried to write the book almost as a novel. He was in and out of rehab facilities and hospitals. I worked on including little bits of humor mixed in with the heavy parts of the narrative. The suggestions in this article would have been great if I’d had them when I was doing the book.
Thank you so much for this fabulous article! Your pieces of advice are useful to any writer. I love the structure of your article and your examples. All the best in your creative work!