(4) How I Write
I always have loved writing! In third grade I wrote stories about forest animals that could talk. My next door girlfriend and I made up stories that went on and on, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. We tried to outdo each other as we took turns telling parts of the same tale that took many outrageous twists and turns. I kept a diary of daily life and wrote stories to read to my toddler brother. In high school and college I wrote for the school newspaper. I double majored in biology and journalism, dreaming that one day I’d write a science textbook. That dream came true! Writing was my passion from the time I could hold pencil to paper.
I spent over 30 years writing and revising a science textbook for a major publisher and from that experience learned that my writing process had to be goal oriented, well-organized, and outlined. My writing process was also reader centered, polished, and with well-defined deadlines. The same things remain true for my memoir writing.
I started by making lists of possible outcomes or goals for my memoir. Was it going to be for children? For young adults? For women? Why did I want to write my story? Was I going to self-publish or seek an agent? Would it be a self-help book? Would I write strictly from the child’s point-of-view or add an adult perspective?
I took classes from authors who self-published, from agents for major publishers, and did research on line, and read memoirs and books about writing memoir. The answers to my musings are in my website’s previous “Writing” features.
At the beginning of the pre-writing phase of my memoir I wrote two lists that each covered many pages, a list of all the fun things I remembered from childhood, and a list of all the terrible things my father did to me. As I compiled these lists I saw that my memories for things that happened when I was nine were more vivid than for years prior to that. Reading my old diaries also helped with this process, although I did not write about my abuse for fear that my father somehow would find my diaries. From these very long lists I circled incidents on both lists that I thought would become the narrative of my memoir. I used various color pens to show incidents that were similar and might be used together.
Next, my “outline” became another long column of the previously circled incidents compiled from both lists, this time in chronological order. I left space between these main headings in order to fill in details, and backstory. Because I was remembering things that happened to me in 1953, I did research into popular music of the time, slang words, news, popular clothing, and what of historical importance happened that year. I talked with old friends and relatives about their memories of this time. I noted places to include these references in my “outline.” This framework continued to evolve over many weeks as I added new items and crossed off others.
Finishing in about a year and a half was my goal. I set a writing schedule week by week. Because I am retired, travel, and dote on grandchildren, my schedule was flexible and adaptable for our lifestyle. I knew from previous experience that I wrote best when I had a block of time at least two hours long. It didn’t matter if it was noisy, if music played or television blared. I was writing my science textbook when my children were still at home, so I learned to write through any type of chaos.
I liked to write a section, a scene, or a piece until it was complete rather than editing while composing the manuscript. The creative part of writing came from a different part of the brain than editing or viewing the piece from a more critical perspective. Editing or polishing the chapter or scene took much longer than the actual writing as I reviewed and rewrote many times, leaving the piece for several days, or if possible a week; then fresh eyes saw where more polishing needed to be done.
After writing several chapters of my memoir, I realized that I needed to add another voice, a grown up voice, so back to my original outline. Where did this voice fit in? I found spots in my outline where the “adult voice” was best, but discovered that as I was writing I just knew when that voice would be appropriate and what it would say at that time.
During my writing process I was fortunate to have a husband who eagerly read new chapters, two writing groups that shared work to critique, and other good friends and relatives who were willing to read my memoir and make suggestions as it evolved. I am also very excited to have a website that enables me to communicate with readers. Thank you for reading! Now start your memoir! There are many ways to begin. What I do works for me, but may or may not work for you. Successful authors have many ways in which their writing process is similar, but they also have strategies that are unique for each of them. Good luck finding your way into writing!
Writing Prompt: Assume you plan to write a memoir. Brainstorm a list of all possible actions and ideas surrounding the time about which you will write. Next circle the items that you may want to focus on in your narrative. Make another list in chronological order of the action and ideas in your memoir. Put it aside for a week, review it again and revise. Make a detailed outline from your list that makes sense to you. Leave space under each heading for characters, setting, and backstory. Remember that you do not have to use Roman Numerals and other traditional outlining methods.