Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Make Your Memoir Timeless

Keyboard and old-fashioned typewriter illustrate how to make your memoir timeless

When writing about your past, how can you keep it relevant for current and future readers?

You probably want to make your memoir timeless, but you can’t expect readers to understand the fine points of, for example, current pop culture or past technologies. How much should you explain, and when should you trust the reader to have some historical knowledge about people, places and things?

Technology: The Moving Target

Along the time line of your memoir, you’ll likely deal with a series of obsolete technologies, their level of obsolescence influenced by the state of the technology at the time you’re doing the writing. All I know is that I’m tired of reading the sentence: “This was before cell phones,” or “This was before we had GPS to guide our journey.” We all know what came before cell phones and how people used to have to use maps and ask for directions. Even young people know this.

The exception would be if you’re writing about a moment in time when most people had more advanced technology than you did. You don’t want readers to think, “This isn’t true, because everyone used GPS by then.” So you might have to explain:

“I had forgotten to MapQuest the route. My friends all had GPS availability on their phones, but my parents had a habit of making sure I always had the most outdated tech.”

Your Memoir is Not a Tech History Book

Let’s look at music and say you’re writing today about an incident that took place as you were listening to your iPod. How might you approach that?

  1. Assume the reader knows nothing about anything and would rather be educated in context than have to Google every sentence:
    “I put on my clunky headphones, which everyone used before Airpods came along, and picked up my iPod, an upgrade from the previous era’s tapes and compact discs (CDs) but not yet replaced by streaming. It looked like a slim bar of white soap and contained all the songs I loaded onto it. I scrolled through my tunes by running my finger in a circular motion along the smooth part in the center of the front of my iPod, until I came to the song I loved by Jesse McCartney, who was not related to Beatle Paul McCartney but was a popular artist at the time.
  2. Provide some background but omit details:
    “I put on my headphones and picked up the music delivery method of the day—my iPod, which I’d customized to contain all of my favorite tunes. I scrolled through until I found my favorite song by Jesse McCartney, who was making it onto the covers of the teen magazines.”
  3. Trust the reader to figure it out:
    “I put on my clunky headphones, turned on my iPod and ran my finger along the small inner circle until I’d scrolled down to my favorite Jesse McCartney song.”

My preference is to do something along the lines of the second option. If the technology is more or less the same as it is today, just leave it. Headphones still come in clunky versions, but it also doesn’t hurt to use an adjective like that. I wouldn’t bother describing how the iPod’s unique scrolling was configured. If you know, you know. And if you don’t, it’s hard to describe well enough to give someone an accurate mental picture, plus it’s just not an important description. You’re writing a memoir, not a history of early 2000s tech.

People and Current Events

The Jesse McCartney mention previews the next problem: what seems universally known today can be forgotten tomorrow. I caution you against referring to “Taylor and Travis,” for example, not that you would. But you might mention a more historically prominent person:

“It was my first time voting. I remember entering the church on the corner, having no idea whether to vote for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan for president.”

Or:

“It was my first time voting. The church on the corner served as our polling place, and I remember entering the room to see little open voting stations lining the perimeter. I had no idea whether to vote for Georgia democrat Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, the Californian republican, in their head-to-head contest for U.S. president.”

If you want to describe the polling place, fine, but otherwise I prefer the simpler, first version. If the narrative follows your voting decision as taking into consideration the political party, where the candidates were from, the way they looked or whatever, you can explain that part. But you don’t have to educate the reader just for the sake of explaining the reference. Readers who don’t recognize the names of U.S. presidential candidates deserve to have to do the Googling.

But you do have to mention that it was a U.S. presidential election. That’s the fine line that can be hard to draw. You can give readers enough credit to assume they know that both men were presidents. But do readers who were not voting in 1980 know that they ran against each other? Maybe it was a gubernatorial or senatorial race. Help out the reader by giving the bare bones of the history.

Tips About Wording for a Timeless Memoir

I think it’s helpful to Future Reader to acknowledge that you don’t know what the world will be like in years to come. In the music example, you can smugly look down on past technologies and reference “streaming” as if everyone will know what that is only to find that five years from now there’s some other method of listening to music. Maybe we’ll all have chips implanted in our ears or something.

What about if you’re describing the ordeal of getting through a very bad weather system? I’m thinking of something like this:

“We paid little attention to the storms that would roar up the Atlantic coast, because they tended to lose strength as they approached Virginia. Or they’d go out to sea after destroying the Carolinas, gather wind power and slam into New England. Hurricane Camille was different, showing no mercy to our little state and remaining, as of 2024, the worst natural disaster on record in Virginia.”

I don’t go for a lot of “looking at the camera”—pausing your narrative to talk to the reader about today—but it does have a place in memoir. This treatment—“as of 2024″—is better than referring to Camille simply as “Virginia’s worst storm on record,” when a storm the very next season could knock that hurricane off the top spot. Then it’s your memoir that would be obsolete.

I want to mention one more method: “…showing no mercy to our little state and, at the time, standing as the worst natural disaster on record in Virginia.” Use that only if, at the time of writing, another storm already had rendered Camille the number-two spot, because that’s what it implies.

How Have You Handled Time Line Issues?

I think I’ve just scratched the surface. Have you had these time line challenges? How have you addressed them? I’d love to hear your ideas. You can leave a comment here, or you can go our Substack for the same entry and leave your comment there.

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Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

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That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!