Memories are made of this:

How to make your memoir memorable

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As a septuagenarian and a retiree, I now work with several senior citizen groups and encourage them to write their memoirs, if only for their families. Among the things I share are the following:

            1)        Facts need not be boring.  Do not start with something like this: “I was born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My father was an assembly line worker and my mother was a homemaker. We lived in Philadelphia for four years before we moved to Syracuse, New York.”

                        The same facts: “When war gripped world in 1939, my mother was gripping my father’s hand as she brought me into the world, a middle-class world in Philadelphia. We lived there for four years until a manufacturing firm in Syracuse offered my father more money than he was earning on an assembly line there. Choosing to leave behind his real brothers and the brothers the city boasted about loving, he packed up our Ford and we headed north.

            2)        Chronology need not dictate your structure.  A sure way to bore your reader is to trace your life year by year. Other themes can incorporate the dates but afford a more interesting construct. To illustrate: You could outline your life via the things and people that captured your passions, from childhood to grandparenthood.

            3)        Syntax need not be repetitive.  The worst writers start every sentence the same way. For example: “I was born in 1943. I was an only child in a middle-class home in Philadelphia. I lived there for four years until my father moved our small family to Syracuse, New York.” 

            4)        Minutiae should be avoided.Leroy Hood, a pioneer in systems biology, warned that if we just focus on the smallest details, we will never get the big picture right. Don’t let an accumulation of unimportant facts drag you, your writing, your reader down. Edit with the big picture constantly in mind.

            5)        Don’t hesitate to involve your reader. There are many ways to involve your reader—painting a compelling verbal picture, asking a probing question, challenging your reader to think about a particular issue. And, although he was referring to education, Benjamin Franklin advised that “if you tell me, I forget. If you teach me, I will remember. But if you involve me, I will learn.” Help your readers learn who you really are.

            6)        Remember it’s notallabout you.Keep your narrative interesting by making reference to events that were happening in your world and in the larger world at various points in your life. No, you don’t want to write a history book, but it will help your reader understand the context of your earlier years when you allude to national and international events. Those events don’t have to be of monumental historical significance, but can reflect the times culturally, athletically, religiously, medically. For example, “While Frank Sinatra was stealing the hearts of bobby soxers, my own heart was stolen by a gentle girl who lived next door.”

            7)        Be more active than passive. The general rule good writers use is to have only about 20% of your sentences written in the passive voice. How to identify the passive voice? Any time you see “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” or “were” or any form of “to be” as the main verb in your sentence, you are not using the active voice. Here’s an example:   “The identification of the criminal has beenenhanced by forensics” is a weak sentence. That’s because there is a form of “to be” in the sentence: “has been.”

            To make that sentence stronger, use the active voice: “Forensics have enhanced the identification of the criminal.”

            8)        “Dense” is not good.  Unsophisticated writers don’t understand the importance of simplicity. Having words that are too long, sentences that are too long, paragraphs that are too long will make your writing seem dense. Even that master speech-giver Winston Churchill told us that “big men use little words.” (Big women, too, of course.] Consider the power contained in the second example below. It says the same thing the first example says. But, it says it much more forcefully:

            It is the opinion of this writer that the implementation of the plan is essential to our neighborhood.

            Our neighborhood must implement this plan.

Here’s even more proof: You’ll agree that few people would remember this observation—“Deleterious consequences often ensure from accelerated execution.” But, nearly everyone remembers that “haste makes waste.”

Your story is an important one, a story that generations might be reading a hundred years from now. If the pearl truly is the oyster’s autobiography, you will want your pearl to shine for many, many years. Make it as lustrous as possible by following these recommendations.

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