Memoir Writing for Mental Health (Details—Part Three) Mapping Out Memories

Where do you get the details to put in a memoir? How do you remember things from so long ago? Which ones are the correct memories to use? How do I connect them?

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You will now gather the particular details and make them universal so your reader can connect with the words you write. Use one part exertion to one part grace as you engage all your senses and summarize the events when you need to pick up pace and intersperse narration with scenes, dialogue, and action to allow the reader to experience your life through their eyes. Be sophisticated and subtle but don’t get preachy.

First things first, let’s set out your timeline of important events in your life.

  • Aha moments
  • My wake-up calls
  • Event that I’ve survived
  • What I know now that I’d wish I’d known back then
  • Think eight-word logline
  • Moments of epiphany
  • What you’d be willing to sacrifice to protect your deepest truths
  • What would you die for?
  • Times of crisis, losing all hope and how you recovered
  • Experiences that have shaken your sense of meaning
  • What you must bury

Don’t forget to add local and world events to give the reader a sense of history. Our timeline (time + space) is our setting. Use your chosen theme to find elements to illuminate your setting then sprinkle the elements of plot. Don’t forget that an easy life is a dull life so add turning points or obstacles or conflict that caused us to scurry in a new direction. These trials and tribulations where your life didn’t run smoothly give your story flavor. Allow your character passions and obsessions reveal your theme. Remember that you’re not writing an autobiography (life to death) but a memoir (highlight of a given time). You want to be deep yet selective. On this timeline, you’ll determine where to start your story, which point of view to use to emphasize plot, eliminating backstory and focusing on plot, where to sprinkle flashbacks and memories, emotional pacing, and where to end your story. Begin with 5-8 key points and then turns those into 40-50 scenes.

Keep in mind that you can tell the story in a linear fashion (moving forward through time), begin with the ending and work backwards, the twist where we invert expectations we’ve been building all along, a sequence of events moving through fascinating experiences, a story within a story, or non-linear (moving between past and present). While you proceed in the way you chose, remember to tease with tension (foreshadowing events, deadlines, warnings, premonitions, withholding information, building anticipation, and surprises or secrets) to keep your reader on their toes.

Now use your universal voice to gather those details to emotionally activate your reader. The first thing we write is our gateway to delve into our truth or felt experiences, where it may even be scary to say out loud, instead take a risk, and make your heart race. Use your opening lines to hook your reader, make them care, and feel they are in a reliable storyteller’s hands. Shock, grip, or compel them to fascinate in your words. If you lose your way, the real work starts, and your journey begins. Examine the complexity of multifaceted events (great, tragic, desperate, and undetermined). Use your voice to create a connection from your personal to the universal so your reader will understand the significant meaning. Feel deeply to evoke the emotional experience. Allow the reader to connect their own stories with our experience.

Now it’s time to tighten and trim your manuscript by editing it. Analyze the pace, setting, point of view, structure, plot holes, character arcs, and voice. Then it comes the time to seek out constructive feedback. Let it go and it will come back to you with suggestions that will put it in a new light. It was a long, tenuous road but you mapped it out which made it easier. Voila!

Until my next post, why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, memoir writing, or even my Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

Memoir Writing for Mental Health (Details—Part Two)

What type of memoir do you choose to write? Thematically based or on a particular timeframe. Some common themes are death of a loved one, career, marriage, childbirth, moving to a new home or town, etc. What are the important moments that stand out for you with the chosen theme or timeframe?

Once you understand how plot, character, and theme all work together, chances are good that, if you get one of them right, you’ll get all three right.

K.M. Weiland, Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development

Let’s take a moment to figure out the story arc of the main character: you. Why? Because over the span of your memoir, you change, people change. Where you begin isn’t the same place as where you end. How did you change? Stronger, happier, married, divorced, alone, wiser, or maybe more resilient? Did you escape abuse and are stronger for it? After a bad marriage, did you find the love of your life? Was that challenging career that you had to sacrifice family time for worth it? Did you prove a naysayer wrong and succeeded at something? Or was it rags to riches? How did your personality change? How did you change? That is your character arc.

If you can’t recite your elevator pitch at the drop of a hat, stay home.

Aliza Licht, Leave Your Mark

Now lets take your chosen type of memoir and add it to the character arc. What do you get? Your memoir logline or its elevator pitch that describes what your memoir is about in a brief paragraph or even a couple of sentences?

Did you run yourself from riches to rags in a span of a few years by being a shopaholic? What did that teach you? Did you work as a missionary in Africa during your twenties? Were you a doula in Guatemala for a brief time? Did you serve in the military and saw combat? Are you a cancer survivor? If so, how did that make you grow as a person? You should have your logline (elevator pitch) by now.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

So, let’s get to the outline. You can use Writer’s Blocks software and title each column a chapter head, a spreadsheet, or even use a sheet of paper to list the chapter numbers down one side. Titling the chapters with important events from the thematically based or timeframe-based memoir that you chose above gives you a starting point as to what each chapter will be about. It’s best to start with a small number of chapters like ten which gives you a good place to begin. Then write 2-4 smaller events or scenes that occurred under each chapter heading. When your done with that go one step further and note 3 even minor events that occurred under those headings. It’s perfectly okay to have some blank lines. You’ll fill those in later. Voila! You have your outline. (If your using Writer’s Blocks software, hit the manuscript transfer to outline format tab and you’ll have your outline typed up for you.) With Writer’s Blocks you can drop and drag your events into a different order or altogether different chapters, and you can expound on your notes or headings. You can expound on an major or minor event of even subtract from it. It’s completely up to you about how much information you wish to share or keep to yourself.

Syd Field’s 3-act Structure

Now let’s get to the structure. I use Syd Field’s paradigm story structure worksheet. It’s meant for screenplays but it will work for any type of book structure with a beginning, middle, and end. You can find a pdf of that here. (If you’re interested in an example of how to fill out the paradigm you can click here.) But for the memoir project, the paradigm structure is to show you the story arc. If you want to break it down further, you can look into the 4-act structure as is in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. If you clicked on that page, you could also check out Rachael Herron’s books, one of which is on memoir building.

Larry Brooks’ 4-act Structure

Now on your outline, divide up the chapters according to either the 3-act structure or 4-act structure. Think: beginning, middle, and end. If you want even further instruction, you can check out Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It breaks down the 3-act structure into 15-points or beats, think scenes or minor events. Again, it’s meant for movie screenplays but can easily be adapted for our purpose: memoir.

I suggest before you begin writing your memoir, according to the structure you chose from above that you plan your writing out on a calendar to keep you accountable and motivated. Cross out the days as you see your results. Some days will be better than others as is life. Whatever you do, don’t stop caring. Because when you do, the readers will stop reading. It’s easy to tell when an author gets bored say somewhere in the middle. Try to keep your motivation up.

Every ending is arbitrary, because the end is where you write The end. A period, a dot of punctuation, a point of stasis.

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

TIP: Why not write the beginning then the ending? You already know what it is because you lived it. This makes it easier to fill in the rest, or at least to break it down into more manageable bites. Then write to prompt a reaction. Make the reader care, cry, laugh, or empathize. When you’re excited about your writing, so are we. It comes through each page. Just like when you talk on the phone and you can sense the person is smiling, reading the written word is similar. Have you ever read David Sedaris’ work such as Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice? You can just sense the smile on his face as he recounts certain scenes in his life.

Now before you go off to write that memoir that world is waiting to read, here are some other suggestions to help you get to the pulp of the matter. Writers Helping Writers Series (8 book series) that includes such titles as The Emotion Thesaurus, The Conflict Thesaurus, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, plus more are extremely helpful during the writing process.

Writers Helping Writers Series

Just think how far you’ll be and how soon you’ll finish if you write just one page a day. That’s 182 pages in half a year which is close to the size of most readable memoirs. If you go to 365 you’re having the reader make a big commitment learning about your life. But if you’ve got that much to say, go for it. There’s always time to edit it down to a manageable size during revision.

For now, write quickly. Get those thoughts out of your mind and down on paper. You can always come back later. But you can’t edit a blank page. So, get to it. And check back for my book reviews of such memoir writing titles as Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach, or The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity by Kerry Cohen.

The point is, you never know what you can do until you really put yourself out there and try. Do it. Whatever it is. Challenge yourself. If you can’t imagine the finish line, the first step is to just show up. And don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Run your own race.

Angie Martinez, My Voice: A Memoir

Enjoyed this post? Why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, my memoir writing, or even my Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

Courageous Writers Circle


In this class, we first set up our sacred space. Next we received our model cue for the day. Then as we wrote the instructor guided us through relaxation prompts to allow our creativity to come forth. Afterwards came the opportunity to share which promoted recognition of our efforts, connection with others, and understanding of different circumstances which were in our stories. Both speaker and listener interacted, even if the listener never spoke. It was truly enriching to hear about the lives of others in what they wanted to share in this courageous writers circle.

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