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Five Questions to Start Your Memoirs

Hong Kong Memories 001 (640x639)


My mother had led a fascinating life. It was full of travel to exotic places and strange coincidences. Whenever she told a story, people were amazed. Over and over again people made the same suggestion: “You should write your memoirs”.

My mother-in-law led a fascinating life. It too was full of travel to (different) exotic places, with extraordinary adventures. Her life too was full of remarkable meetings, and adventures.

Both these women were the same age, and both are gone now. They lived through a period of time when pretty much the whole world changed. From being young girls during WWII, to seeing the start of the atomic age, the Cold War (my mother took me behind the Iron Curtain when I was a toddler – now there’s a story), the worldwide eradication of smallpox, and the rise of new media. When these two mothers, living on opposite sides of the world, were young hardly anyone had a television in their home, and if you wanted to contact someone in a hurry you looked for a phone booth or sent them a telegram.

Scrapbook layout - The Long Story

Scrapbooking – my mother and I in 1970

In my own living memory there have been just as many miracles. That Iron Curtain – once such a huge part of how the world worked – is gone, as is apartheid. When I went to school we were told we would not always have a calculator in our pocket, but now not only do I carry a calculator, but a stopwatch, a television, a comprehensive road map, a typewriter, an encyclopedia, and a computer with more computation power than was on the Apollo moon landers – in my pocket. If I want to contact someone in a hurry, I send them a text.

My daughter is growing up in a world where information is at her fingertips. She can stay almost as connected with her friends that live across the world, as she did when they lived across the courtyard.

As much as I love science fiction, and the predictive powers of futurists, there really is no way to tell how the world will change further in my lifetime. Where are the flying cars we were promised, eh? Still, if we don’t tell the stories of the past, our stories of how we lived and how our world changed, the fascinating information will be lost. My mother never did write those memoirs, and there is so much more I would like to know about her life.

Memoir vs Biography

A biography is the usually chronological telling of a person’s life story, usually the whole thing.

A Memoir is the story, with usual story structure (beginning, middle, end) of a particular event or period in a person’s life. The sequence of events in one period of the life might be linked by a recurring theme, or the natural bracket might be the beginning and end of an event. The time my mother spent travelling in Asia could be told as a memoir. “84, Charing Cross Road” is a memoir about the author’s connection with that bookstore over many years. Other events in her life are alluded to, but are not the focus. Added together a bunch of memoirs can become chapters in an autobiography.

A biography can be a big undertaking – I know, I’m working on one right now – with lots of research. Memoirs can be much smaller, worked on in manageable chunks. The editing into a “volume” of some kind can come later.

In getting started you might have a theme in mind already. This could be something that you want to record for posterity, or an expression of your hopes or deeply held beliefs. You might keep a journal, and have a wealth of material ready to collate. You might never have kept a diary for a minute, and rely on your memory and repetition of old stories. Memory does funny things, turning a whole period of time to a sequence of moments, flashes,  a montage with the transitions gone.

Practical Matters

How will you do this writing? My husband prefers dictation. He speaks his stories into a recorder for transcription later. That is fast, by the way. Other people prefer to type directly, or even write by hand. Making notes in a journal in point form, or description are a good start. I like to type.

The Questions

If writing memoirs seems daunting, perhaps these five questions can help you get started.

1. What are the most significant events or moments in your life?

I encourage you to start easy – with the familiar stories that come out at family gatherings. Or perhaps the big events – your wedding, the birth story of your child – see where these lead. Try mind storming, look for the links between events.

2. What happened?

Simple, isn’t it? Start with the events. Record who else was part of them.

3. How did I get to that point?

The background may become the story. Why you were there? Memoirs are less concerned with hard facts, dates or addresses, and more with your recollections, feelings and reactions. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t double check your dates, but if the information about which flight I took to Tahiti is not available, that doesn’t really matter in the story of my year spent there.

4. What happened next?

Perhaps you will find a link to the next story this way.

5. What have you kept hidden?

There might be an unpleasant moment or annoying relative who always turned up at these things. In writing a memoir, you don’t have to tell the world, but you should tell the truth to yourself. My mother kept many secrets, of which I know only a few. Some were burdens, other were made trivial by the passage of time. She might have felt freer had she written about them somewhere, even if she burnt it later.

On the other hand, sometimes you just forget things until you start writing.

Write your memoirs

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Memoirs I Love


If you find these questions useful, please let me know. I don’t have comments here (due to ridiculous amounts of spam) but I’m on Facebook or here’s a contact box:


Wreck This Journal in red

From Amazon

I bought a journal called “Wreck This Journal” by Keri Smith. It is full of suggestions on each page for things to put there, ways to damage the book, and places to take it. One of the instructions is “work against your better judgment”.

The emphasis is on enhancing your sense of freedom, smashing boundaries, and embracing the courage to do something different and personally challenging – destroying a perfectly good journal as a game.

This would be the perfect starter journal for someone who was interested in altered books or other altered art, but just couldn’t bring themselves to ruin an existing book in the process.

Personally I love tearing up old books to use the pages for collage art – with the presumably obvious proviso that it’s not a first edition or otherwise rare book. Truth moment: if I’m worried about the value of the book, I scan attractive pages and play with them instead.

Destruction is a useful concept for enhancing creativity. Sometimes objects become useful for creative purposes when they are dismantled. It’s not just learning how something works – reverse engineering a machine, or a compound – it’s also inspiring ideas for how things might go back together in a novel way. The other day I was passed at a stop light by a reclining bicycle that looked so odd, I suspect a home built. Different, ingenious.

And then there’s using the parts for a different purpose altogether. “MacGyver” – worth watching a few episodes just for fun. But what else – machine parts for Steampunk jewelry (there’s an aesthetic preference coming up), interesting shapes for stencils or as resists,  creating armatures or bases of sculpture, and I mentioned collage so I will add found object art.

Nature destroys for creation – a garden thrives on compost and tilling. I’ve been planting bulbs and transplanting orchids – you have to dig a hole. If you want flower beds, you have to sacrifice some lawn.

Being willing to destroy in order to create – including being willing to take apart an old idea or assumption – is as important as being willing to begin.

I think the feeling of reluctance to  tear apart a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica is very similar to the fear of putting that first mark on a six foot canvas (do you know how much those bad boys cost?), or write the first words in your character description.

One tip for the wary – have a plan, at least for the beginning. Follow an instruction even if it is one you wrote yourself. (“Tear out every other page”; “Start with blue across the center”).

So how do you get past the feeling that you are breaking something or destroying the value of it?

Start small and easy. You might try “Wreck This Journal” or you could consider a visit to a used book store for some old paperbacks – especially if they have multiples. How about starting with outdated school textbooks? The math ones have some lovely visuals. Remember the line in “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) ?

Uh… ‘scuse me? You guys? Yeah… there’s a whole section on tax law down here that we can burn.

Consider this: every time you take apart an old piece of obsolete equipment, like that junky turntable, you make the pristine one they keep in the Smithsonian’s storeroom more valuable.

Electronics dissected


I learnt recently, through the long process of trying to sell items from my mother-in-law’s estate, that many everyday objects that we thought must have historical value for someone, are generally considered not even worth trying to sell. Condition is everything. Once it’s chipped, or torn or stained, unless it is truly an antiquity or genuine old, old antique or super rare handmade limited edition to begin with (like our fireplace surround) – it might be worth more made into new art. Reupholstered in a contemporary fabric. Covered with mosaic, or spray painted. Turned into a box or a table. Cut up for a purse or pillow.

Or this.

The trick is to just start. Make that first mark, that first cut, that first tear. Wet things that should stay dry (unplugged of course!) Let things dry out that are usually wet and see what results (artchokes dry beautifully). Crumple and bend. Scrape, sand and poke.

Just start.

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Writing Reviews


If you want a baby steps way into creative writing, try book reviews. They are a great way to practice organizing your thoughts with brevity and clarity.

Perhaps some of you remember writing “book reports” for school, and cringe at the thought of having to replicate that onerous task as adult. But there are several key differences.

  • You are choosing the material you read for your own pleasure or information.
  • You are entirely in charge of the length of your critique.
  • It’s OK to dislike a publication. You don’t have to finish it, and you are free to either write a review including the fact that it didn’t hold your attention, or not bother.
  • No one else has to read it, unless you choose – although I do challenge you to take that plunge.
  • If you do publish your review, the criteria that readers apply to judge it are usually “helpful” vs “not helpful”, not “good” vs “bad”. Even a single word can be found helpful.

Here’s a link to a review I wrote years ago on Amazon.com.  At the time I was so inspired by this author that I couldn’t hold in my desire to tell the world about him.

Seven tips for creating helpful book reviews while enhancing your own creativity confidence:

  1. Jump start the process by jotting down single words that express your reactions. Add some descriptive words about the characters, or the information. Look for synonyms. It’s OK to use a thesaurus.

  1. Make some notes about genre – this is always a good lead in, especially for fiction..

  1. Use your adjectives to generate the first sentence summary with a strong verb (eg “This potboiler mystery thrilled me from first to last”). This may be all that a reader actually reads.

  1. No spoilers! Your middle school teacher was keen to know whether you had actually done the reading, so would encourage you to reveal your knowledge of the story. The readers of reviews generally only want a teaser of the plot, or subject matter. Keep the outline very brief – shorter than book jacket copy.

  1. Keep it personal. Explain your emotional reaction to the writing.

  1. Say why. If you have a conclusion about a book, explain why you believe this.

  1. Limit meta critique (or maybe don’t). If there are egregious factual errors in a supposedly informative book, you do a service when you show them. But if this is a novel, getting picky about facts might be inappropriate. No one really minds that Han Solo mixed his units of measure when he spoke of the Kessel run. No one likes a grammar snob, but no one likes being pulled out of the story by a succession of jarring typos and grammar flubs either. If a book contains errors to the point of absurdity, perhaps your review will get funny.


Goethe proposed that all art works be evaluated in the light of three questions.

  • What was the artist trying to do?

  • Has the artist succeeded?

  • Was it worth doing?

It is in the nature of art, including writing, that divining the artist’s intention – interpreting the meaning of any piece – can be challenging. Art enjoins the viewer to collude with the piece to create interpretations. One could argue that the best art inspires lively debate as to the “true” meaning, or artist’s intention.

As for whether it was worth doing, the answer might be political or personal. The worth of an undertaking might be greater for the artist in his or her journey, than for the viewer or audience. Perhaps the meaning even of the questions has changed with time. Goethe died a very old man in 1832. Ideals of beauty and worth have certainly changed. Everyone brings their own past, baggage, life state and personal beliefs to every situation. Your assessment of what you see will always be slightly different from mine.

If you write your review in such a way that where you stand is clear, you will help more readers by establishing commonality.

Simple questions – complex answers.

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