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Writing a Memoir: How to Eliminate Your Fears and Doubts


It's a simple, six-letter word, but it is one of the most powerful in the English language. It has the power to resurrect the Titanic, take us back to the bloodied beaches of the D-Day landings, recall the glory and joy of summiting the world's highest mountains, and enable us to vent our communal sorrow at the passing of rock stars and supermodels. It also has the power to creep into the deepest recesses of our hearts and reveal our innermost secrets and our lifelong fears, revel in the bloom of early love, and soar into the stratosphere with astronauts heading to the moon.

The word that makes all these pivotal moments or recollections in our lives possible is "memoir." Ironically, though, most of us do not have the courage to write our memoirs. This article will help you overcome your fears and doubts and help you produce a potential masterpiece of your life's memories.

According to the dictionary, a memoir is a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge. To me, it represents much more. A memoir is a treasure chest or Pandora's Box of lifetime memories that enables each one of us to relive our experiences. It is a medium that helps us unlock the vault of secrets, joys, sorrows, lifetime accomplishments and experiences, ordinary everyday events, and hidden moments that make us who we are.

A memoir helps us unlock the vault of secrets, joys, sorrows, lifetime accomplishments and experiences, ordinary everyday events, and hidden moments that make us who we are
A memoir helps us relate the hidden moments that make us who we are.

A memoir also enables us to testify to the great historical events of our times, the people and places that have influenced us, and how we have kept them uppermost in our unspoken memory throughout our lives. Whether you are writing your memoirs to tell the world how you executed 22 men and women in San Quentin Prison; whether you are closing the final chapter of your life in a fireside rocking chair; or whether you are an icon of the Internet age recounting your contributions to Artificial Intelligence or the development of the drone, you all have one thing in common: each one of your stories is unique. Furthermore, each memoir has the potential to move others deeply and affect the trajectory of your life.

Follow these six steps for getting your memoirs done fearlessly

Step 1 - Define your purpose

If you intend to write your memoirs, it is crucial to have a brainstorming session with yourself to understand your motivation for doing so. Are you going to write your memoirs so future generations can sift through the pages of your life to better understand where they came from and how your experiences shaped them? Are you going to write your memoirs as the basis of a best-selling non-fiction novel ("My tortured life as the San Quentin executioner)? Or are you going to write your memoirs because you feel you have to get your life experiences out there—either for reasons of guilt, passion, love, or grief?

Establishing your motive will bring focus to your mission and play a significant role in the way you fashion your writing. It will also give you an idea who your target readership will be, and whether it will be millions of people or just one or two family members. Having established the purpose of writing your memoirs, you can proceed immediately to the next step.

Step 2 - Drop the fear

There is no doubt that millions of unpublished works, including novels, collections of poetry, biographies, and personal memoirs lie gathering dust in forgotten attics and basements, relegated to obscurity by an attribute most of us know all too well—fear. For many writers, fear of failure represents an obstacle to writing akin to crossing the Great Wall of China— it just cannot be overcome.

However, for those of you teetering on the brink of indecision about writing your memoirs, consider this quote by the poet Marcus Hades: Sometimes your destiny is wrapped up in a veil of fear to check if you really have the courage to face it. Also consider another quote by the American author and journalist, Robert Cormier, who said, The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery. These are important points. Acknowledge your fear, then drop it, and always remember that in writing the first draft of your memoirs, getting it down is more important than getting it perfect.

Step 3 - Set a timeline and structure

Having decided on your motivation and getting on with it, carefully consider the timeline for a while. Do you want your memoir to follow a chronological sequence from your birth to your present stage in life; or would you like to do the opposite in which you start with your present station in life and proceed to review the most memorable events of your life (much like the elderly Rose did in the movie Titanic).

The latter follows a pyramidal structure, in which the memoir starts with a relatively small recollection and builds up into what could be a story of mammoth proportions. Conversely, you could adopt an inverted pyramidal structure, in which your memoir opens with an unforgettable event, like the sinking of the Titanic or being on the frontlines in Afghanistan (or the night you fell into the pool on the way back from a party!). Whichever way you go, you will be setting an important structure on which to base your memoirs. Some authors write their memoirs as separate chapters detailing unforgettable experiences in their lives; others write their memoirs as a chronicle of their entire lives, and include details that may be frivolous to a public audience, but very important to family members and friends. It's your choice.

Step 4 - Write for yourself

If you are not used to writing, and now confront the reality of writing about your life, you have to follow this mantra, and repeat it every day: "Write for yourself." Don't be straightjacketed by the fear that others may pick holes in your writing or criticize the format, structure, and content. Just get the words down on a blank page, and leave the worries you have about style, composition, grammar, spelling, and so forth to a reviewer at the end of the manuscript.

Millions of potential authors are paralyzed by the fear of what others will think; as a consequence, their writing quickly evaporates into a distant dream. In writing your memoirs, heed the advice of Leonard Cohen, Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in.

Don't let the fear of what others think paralyze you as a writer
The fear of what others will think can paralyze a writer.

Once you accept there will be cracks in your writing, start getting it down. Write, write, write! Plaster the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler to the wall above your computer: If I waited till I felt like writing I would never write at all.

Consistency and discipline are blood relatives when it comes to writing your memoirs or a book. You can set a minimum number of words to write every day, or you can aim to complete your memoir by a certain date. One of the dozen or so books I have written was born out of a New Year's resolution to start the book on January 1 and complete it by January 1 the following year. I finished the book on December 31. It's impossible to write the same amount every day, but if you set a daily minimum and adhere to that minimum, you will get through your memoirs by the projected date.

Step 5 - Set the scene and engage your senses

A memoir can be a thrilling account of a vibrant and dynamic life, or it can be pitched in such a way that it will put its readers to sleep after the first few pages. You can avoid this by establishing scene setters to every new chapter you write. These are usually evocative descriptions of (often) dramatic events that have changed or influenced your life.

Millions of Americans will recall in detail exactly where they were and what they did on 9/11 when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came down. This day could be the opening scene setter to a chapter in your life you will never forget. When writing your scene setter and the subsequent events that took place, engage all your senses—remember the sounds, the smells, the taste, and the things that touched or moved you in the clearest detail. The ready accessibility of research from countless sources across the Worldwide Web enables you to provide details of major events that have happened in your life in great, unerring detail.

Step 6 - Collaboration and editing

Don't be afraid of engaging the sympathetic ear or help of a friend or colleague during the arduous process of putting your life down on paper. Encouragement is the spark that fuels innovation and success. And such encouragement when you are writing your memoirs is indispensable. It has been widely proven in the marketing literature that collaboration between employers and employees in any field of endeavor has fueled the success of companies around the globe. Collaboration in writing your memoirs will yield similarly positive results. So engage help, share your secret fears and anxieties, and success will be yours.

Finally, when you reach that last paragraph and close the manuscript recording your memoirs, take a break of at least a month. Then return, reread, and refine. And when those tasks are accomplished, look around for a good editor to review the manuscript for you. Whether one person or a thousand read your memoirs, you will always be able to rest easy in the knowledge that you did it—you beat the beast and overcame the fear. And, who knows, maybe your memoirs will become a bestseller!

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