The List You Need to Write a Memoir

Elyse here.  As some of you know, I’m currently taking a Memoir Writing Course to help get me focused on writing up my memoir about my psychotic, alcoholic German Shepherd, Goliath. Luce of, posted this really helpful list of things to keep in mind when writing a memoir that I wanted to share with anyone who is struggling like I am!

For those anxious to see what my memoir is about, see these posts. Because you guys encouraged me, you know.  So it’s all your fault.

For Medicinal Purposes Only

What’s in a Name?

Dogs and Other Nuts

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

I started working on my memoir an embarrassingly long time ago. When I started I thought I knew what a memoir was–after all, I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s the story of Maya Angelou’s childhood.  OK, I could do that.  I didn’t have a similar experience–not even close–but I had my own events to write about.

What I didn’t realize when I started was that a memoir isn’t just telling what happened to me in chronological order.  The story is all in how you slice it, according to Tristine Rainer (I’ve written about her great advice several times).

In order to write a memoir I had to figure these things out:

  1. Exactly what story I wanted to tell.  After all, I have had a full life and could probably mine several books out of it.  To focus on one particular story, I took the advice of…

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46 responses to “The List You Need to Write a Memoir

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  2. I’d like to hear about the memoir writing course you’re taking. Is it in a classroom setting, or online?

    Good luck with the book. I know it will be great.


    • Thanks, Charles. I think it’ll be good assuming it gets written! That’s the hard part.

      The class is Memoir I online through Gotham Writers Workshop. If you want to send me your email address to, I’ll be glad to let you know the pros and cons. Online just fits with my schedule better.


  3. How in the blue blazes did I miss this? Good lord, your memoir would be such a good read, I just know it. As for me, I’ve started my memoir and so far so good, I have all the pages numbered! (there’s an old Steven Wright joke in there somewhere….)


  4. This is why I’ll never write my memoir. By GOD the list of dos and don’ts and suggestions and rules and what-all…I am impressed that you’re willing to go through all this. Of course, your life story is no doubt WORTH all the trouble to tell.


  5. Writing is hard. It’s a craft one keeps learning. Bravo for you bringing Goliath to all of us.


  6. cooper

    If i can write something….just keep going. you’ll get there.


  7. winsomebella

    Keep on keepin’ on with that memoir because we readers wait :-). Thanks for the helpful references and have a great weekend Elyse.


  8. Good stuff – I find I am at a point where I am stuck trying to figure out how to weave all the pieces together.


    • You are well along — I’m continually impressed. I can’t wait to see how you figure out how to do that weaving. My trouble is that the start and end of certain stories span years and figuring out how to weave them together will be a challenge. But then I have a very long way to go to get to where you are!


      • Well thanks. I look at each story as a separate chapter so far – and I have been stuck on one story for about a month now. Some things just flow, some seem to be much more difficult. I know that my stories will not fit neatly into a chronological order – and at this point I think I am going to line them by mood – it may not work. I am looking at taking a class this summer too. I love your stories – I am excited to see where you take it.


        • Chronology is over-rated! It can work but while life events do happen that way, our understanding of them doesn’t. It’s a hard job, weaving!


        • Wow, good for you, I am impressed as well! I have intentions on writing my memoir but then I have to actually sit down and write and things start to fall apart for me.


          • Lorri is sooooo good. And so far along.

            I just now submitted the beginning for my class. Wish me luck!


          • I hadn’t had that happen until very recently. I am working on one spot that is tough to find the right tone for. I agree Elyse, that chronology is overrated. I have been thinking of the project as just telling some good old stories.


  9. Foot Tapping. I am trying hard, very hard indeed not to cross my arms across my chest and tip my head to the side. Uh huh, waiting.

    Sooooo, what is taking so long. Huh?

    You are fascinating, funny and so not boring at all. You have world travel and a very cool dog to guide you through it all. What more do you need?


    • You don’t have to do that, Val. My husband is. Waiting impatiently for the final product — and the massive riches that will flow. Foot tapping.

      I’ve got some good stories, I think. But it is harder to put them into a cohesive unit. And the details are hard to remember. But I will get there.

      If not, I’ve got my list of excuses already in draft form!


  10. Good stuff, Elyse. Although I think that a lot of writing advice is like child rearing advice: you read it, you pick up one or two tips you think will work (you abandon them if they don’t), and then you go with your gut and just do it! Good luck! 🙂


  11. I should enroll in a course. I wonder what would come of it. I keep reading that if you want to write a book/volume of poetry/essays, just write. So I write vignettes and someday, perhaps I can rejoice on a good writing day and say “Hey, I can use post #221” here. Day off. Just…a matter of connecting so many dots.
    I remember a family member comment about his screenplay…this scene has no value, but I felt there needed to be something between point J and point K. ha…I think that scene (between point J and K) with “no value” was one of the funniest scenes in his screenplay.
    So cool you are writing with others in a class.


    • This is the third one I’ve taken — through Gotham Writers Workshop. The classes are quite good, the lectures informative and helpful. Some of the information I’ve been taught I use, some I don’t — there is no one size fits all. But I’ve gotten plenty out of the course, enough that when I decided to try to do a real memoir, I signed up. I will get some good things out of the course, some won’t apply. But the lectures are helpful and I have had great teachers. And I can participate in my own time, which is invaluable!


  12. oooh! a memoir… it’s gonna read like a sidney sheldon novel, right? 🙂


  13. You have certainly led an interesting life. I can’t wait to read more!


  14. cortney

    Sounds like an fascinating course – and a challenging project, especially in terms of structure. The stories you’ve shared with us about Goliath thus far are so vivid, I’m interested to read how those pieces fit with the trajectory of everyday life and how the narrative of it is told from your point of view. Best of luck with the writing process!


  15. Good post. I don’t plan on writing a memoir–no sense in inducing a coma state in my readers–but if I did, I think dealing with how to best approach needed backstory would trip me up the most.


  16. I have loved all your Goliath stories, and agree that the world at large needs to have the chance to read his memoirs. Keep plugging away at those writing courses … Goliath is patiently waiting to be brought back to life.

    and thanks for sharing the link … interesting blog post … I especially loved the part about throwing out the advice of professionals, and just taking the approach that fits the story being told. Sometimes you just have to wing it.


    • Thanks, 99. I agree with a lot of what she says in this post. But I think the thing you always have to remember is that it’s your story. Take what advice helps you tell it and leave the rest either for another time or another project!


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