I promised a group of my writing students a list of my favorite do-it-yourself memoir writing prompts. Here they are:
Writing A Life
If you don’t tell your stories, who will?
Some Favorite Writing Prompts
What do you most want to say? Which one story best illustrates that?
If you’re writing about yourself, try this:
– write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 – or 16, 38, 67.
– tell about a time you moved from one place to another. What did you miss? What did you like/dislike about the new place?
– where were you when (Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, 9-11) happened? What were you doing? When did you realize what the event meant?
– write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation?
– is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?
If you’re writing about someone else, try this:
– did the person emigrate from another country? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?
– who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?
– think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?
– what do you wonder about this person’s life? What would you like to ask if you could?
To add details and depth to your stories:
Think of family sayings, regionalisms, etc. and how and when they were used.
Think about the place where your story happens: a room, town or region. What did you (or the person you’re writing about) absorb from that place? What didn’t you absorb?
Think about some of the things you or your subjects took for granted, but that readers might wonder about:
Food – cooking, eating, buying, growing, likes/dislikes, plates, pots, washing up
How did they get from one place to another in their daily lives?
How did they deal with the weather?
What would they have said about themselves?
How did they get news?
What objects were admired? What ideas?
Ideas to help you get to the end of your story:
Begin and end your story with the reason you’re writing it.
Write about your homes in the order you lived in them – home can be a house or a town. Or begin or end with your favorite.
Write about your children or your siblings in the order in which they were born. Each person is a chapter.
Write about your jobs in the order you held them. Or begin with your favorite.
Divide your life into decades and write about each one. This can work well as an outline or timeline, especially if you have some photos to work with. What happened in each of your decades? What does it mean to you?
Further resources: Many of these writing prompts are inspired by Bob Greene’s book, To Our Children’s Children, and from Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Non-fiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, and from Sara Mansfield Taber’s forthcoming book, Writer’s Field Notebook, and from class exercises at the Loft in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.
What I Know About Writing
Writing can be a scary business. When we do it well, we place a little bit of ourselves on the page, exposed and vulnerable for anyone who comes along to see, to poke at, to prod, to question. This is especially true when we are writing for family members. “That’s not the way it happened!” we fear they’ll say. Well, they may see things differently from where they stand. You can only tell the story you see from where you stand.
So, a word about telling the truth: there are facts and then there is the truth. It’s easy to find facts like birth and death dates, who lived where when, etc. But the truth of the lives lived around those facts – including your own life – is the story you’re here to tell. Transforming memory to story is a priceless gift to both reader and writer.
Need help? Please contact me at judybudreau AT gmail.com