As a memoir writer, you should know about an American author and teacher named William Zinsser. Now 90 years old and still writing, Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well. In 2006, he wrote an essay for The American Scholar that provided valuable insight into the process of writing a memoir. With its inspirationally warm temperatures and lazy-day vacationing, summertime is a great season to begin your memoir or make significant progress on it. To help you do that, let’s spend a portion of this summer discussing Zinsser’s essay, succinctly titled, “How to Write a Memoir.”
I’m going to start at the end, with the very last piece of advice in that essay: how to get started. Zinsser suggests:
“Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past. Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your ‘memoir,’ the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day,…[read through your entries] and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take. Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.”
More about this essay in the coming weeks.