How Do I Shape My Memoir?

Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send me your question in a COMMENT to the blog post or email me directly at and I’ll answer it on my next Q & A  for HerStories. There’s more about writing and about memoir on my website:, so be sure to visit me there, too.

Dear Suzanne: I can’t figure out where to start writing about my life! I’m 72 and my memories go back to living in my first house. I wasn’t even 3. That’s a long time.  How do I manage everything when there’s so much to write about? It all muddles together and I feel overwhelmed. — Muddled with Memories

Dear Muddled:
You can change that! And the solution is creative and usually greases your writing gears so you’re ready to go, clear-minded, and inspired.

Years ago, my father raised a deck of cards in the air and said, “Do you know how to play 52 pick-up?” I didn’t. He dropped the cards; I learned fast.

Memories can be like that game of 52 pick-up. And ordering all those stories of yours can be like playing cards, too, with their chronology (numbered cards) inside suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs). You just have to avoid 52 pick-up. How do you do that? Here are some suggestions.

1. Choose a Time Period
First, determine the time of your life you want to write about. A timeline can bookend the beginning and ending of your story. You can always add to it once you complete the section you choose.

* Childhood years
* Years living in a particular city
* Time pursuing a certain goal
* Your spiritual journey
* An overseas adventure

2. Draw a Timeline
Once you’ve chosen a time period, determine the major events that took place on a timeline. On a blank piece of paper, draw a long horizontal timeline, marking half-inch tabs along it. Label each tab for a year, month, or day, depending the length of your total timeline.
If the time period you’ll write about is short (up to 15 years), you may want to use an annual timeline, for example, which could look like this:


1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 and so on.

3. Mark Major Life Events
Major life events can be: birth, graduation, the first job, moving, falling in love, meeting a nemesis, getting married, starting a business, meeting a mentor, losing a job, having children, arriving in a new country, getting divorced, having an illness, meeting a spiritual teacher, winning an award, becoming a grandparent.

Mark your timeline with the major events that happened during that period. This provides a chronological structure for your memoir.

4. Find the Emotional Turning Points
On your timeline, you can start to see the emotional turning points of your life. A turning point is when something happens that changes your life direction or experience in profound ways. Turning points are potent story topics.

If you prefer more space for writing as you work with your list — and remember, you are still creating the framework to follow for your memoir, an outline that offers structure and shape — use a blank notebook and label one page for each year on your drawn timeline. Fill in the major life events, emotional turning points and historical events of each year. Use that journal as a chronological record of your life from which to write your memoir.

These methods are invaluable. Have a good time with whichever one  you use!

9 responses to “How Do I Shape My Memoir?

  1. Excellent advice Suzanne! I think the biggest issue for memoir writers—especially those of us with (ahem!) an abundance of life experience—is choosing what to include and, more importantly, what to exclude from our memoirs. Choosing a specific time frame (not an entire life!) and focusing on the emotional turning points during the period of time really helps us hone in on what’s important. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

  2. “Mark the major turning points” is critical, whether you’re writing about 6 months or 6 years. Thanks for the tip.

    B. Lynn Goodwin
    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  3. Pingback: Blogtalk: From Journaling to Essay and Memoir Writing — Writing Through Life

  4. Reblogged this on Teaching Trollope and commented:
    After the semester is over, it’s time for the Sabbatical (eg the change of career) and part of that is accepting a job helping a musician friend of mine write his biography. He’s not world famous, but has had several interesting brushes with fame. This article helps me try to chart out a course for him to begin with. The man is full of stories. Where to begin?

  5. Pingback: Narrative Timelines | thedailycreativewriter

  6. Your suggestion of finding the emotional turning points really resonated with me; thank you!

  7. Pingback: What Really Happened? | Telling HerStories: The Broad View

  8. Pingback: Connect the Dots | Suzanne Sherman

  9. Pingback: Blogtalk: From Journaling to Essay and Memoir – Writing Through Life

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