My Memoir

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” wrote a journalist in the Toronto Globe and Mail (May 28, 2017).  We might add that they likely will not tell it as well or with as much understanding as we ourselves can provide. Another writer might report the salient facts of our lives, but not the lessons we’ve learned, the insights we’ve gleaned, or the perspectives we wish to pass on.

Dr. Christina Puchalski is a professor of health science at George Washington University and, as a general practitioner, her work includes geriatric and palliative care. In a podcast entitled “Spiritual Dimensions of End-of-Life,” she noted that for her patients one of the major issues is their legacy: How will they be remembered? 

A Memoir may be the answer. A narrative of our life experiences, it often is a lengthy account that helps us to understand ourselves and others to remember us. Writing a memoir may require considerable thought and work. Neither this brief Writing Activity nor our six-session “Life Sentences” course can provide adequate guidance for the creation of a memoir. Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of such a short course. 

What these guidelines aim to do, if you are writing on a memoir, is to suggest ways to use all of the resources of the course to take your work forward. 

Why Write a Memoir?

The short answer is: It’s about leaving a legacy.

Karen Toole is a United Church minister and the former Spiritual Care Coordinator for Manitoba Health. In April, 2018, she was leading a session on “Leaving a Legacy” when a woman’s hand shot up. “Really, what’s the point of this?” the woman asked. Despite the critical tone, it was a good question. At the heart of it, the woman was asking, “What’s the point of my life?” and that is not a question one can answer easily. Before we can “leave a legacy” to others—be they our children, grandchildren, siblings or friends—we need to understand it ourselves. We must embark on a journey of self-discovery. The recollections we gather for a memoir can help to light our way and, over time, they also may help others to find their way.

Katie Funk Wiebe, in her final memoir Border Crossing, saw her task as making maps “for those coming after us” and filling in “the uncharted regions of the new country of the aging…” (200). We may also think of our memoirs as signposts for those who come after us, recalling the words of the ancient prophet Jeremiah to Israelite leaders returning from their Babylonian exile: “Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take. Return, O Virgin Israel, return to your towns” (Jer. 31:21).

If we are good stewards of our possessions and leave a financial legacy to others, none of the recipients is likely to ask: “Really, what is the point of this?” Rather, they think immediately of how they might use the money. Though our beneficiaries might not be as quick to use the memories we steward and share in a memoir, we do it for the same reasons. Our written reflections on our experiences are an expression of love and respect and signposts for those who come after us. 

Ken Dychtwald, in his book With Purpose writes about Mitch Albom’s popular memoir Tuesdays with Morrie. “It’s not a Hollywood story about a conquest or guy gets girl or coming of age,” he says. “It’s about the passing of wisdom; about the primal need for elder guidance and to pass along all that one has learned. There is something powerful about the passing of knowledge and wisdom and perspective from one generation to the next. Album’s book nailed it—and hit a global nerve” (117). Whether or not the memoir you write hits “a global nerve,” the knowledge, wisdom and perspective you pass on may also be powerful.

What is a Memoir?

A memoir often is treated as the same thing as an autobiography. Sven Birkerts, however, makes a helpful distinction in The Art of Time in Memoir. An autobiography, he suggests, inclines to be a comprehensive and inclusive account of the subject’s life. By contrast, the life remembered in a memoir is more highly interpreted, with experiences and reflections selected in light of a particular theme. These Memoir guidelines adopt that understanding. “The point of the work,” Birkerts says, “is to discover through memory the linkages that give resonance to what otherwise would be the chaos of life” (54). In a memoir, we recount our experiences, of course but it is about more than just what happened, when and with whom; the emphasis is on exploring why the events happened and what they mean to us.

Using the Other “Life Sentences” Writing Activities

As you reflect on your life experiences, either ones you already have written about or that you intend to write about, you may find the following Writing Activities add breadth or depth to your evolving work.  Read through the commentaries, options and question, using them as a springboard for your own work.

  • Life Questions
  • Turning Points
  • Ethical Wills
  • How My Mind Has Changed
  • My Tribute
  • Travel Narratives

Since you are the main character in your Memoir story, you also might consider two additional activities. They may help you to understand your own “character arc,” your inner transformation.

Who Am I Now, at this Age and Stage of Life?

Imagine that you could go to a comprehensive Dictionary of Biography, look up your name and find a “definition” that helped you to understand who you are. It would be a significant step in discerning the meaning of your life. As we seek to make sense of our life—to find its “meaning”—we essentially answer two questions: “Who am I?” (identity) and “What am I doing?” (activities).

Your task: Create five (or more) “I am…” statements that describe who you are or what you are doing.

There is a restriction in this activity: You may make only one reference to your job or career, past or present. People who have a physical or mental illness say, “I am not defined by this.” Nor should we be defined by our gainful work. Instead, think about who you are in such terms as family relationships, provincial or national identity, political perspectives, recreational interests, faith outlook, eating preferences…and so on.


  • “I am a son, a husband, an in-law, a brother, an uncle / great uncle, and a devoted friend, cherishing the bonds that draw me closer in each relationship.”
  • “I am a dreamer. Usually I’m preoccupied with the many projects on my list. They continue to excite me and they give me a strong reason to get up each morning.”

Your Developing Character

  • Thinking back to your late childhood or early teens, what are five words that you (or your close friends) might have used to describe you?  
  • How well did those words fit you? lf those words were appropriate, how did they relate to your thoughts, behaviour or activities?  
  • How have you remained the same during the intervening years? Which of those descriptive words from your childhood or teen years might still be used to reflect your thoughts, behaviour or activities?  
  • How have you changed since then until now? What contributed to those changes?   Which words might be added to your list to describe accurately the person you have become?

Using the “Life Sentences” Writing Lessons

As you review your notes and any draft material you have written, you also may benefit from advice in the Writing Craft Lessons

Going with the Flow: The Writing Process

Writing a memoir, like any long work, takes time, energy and planning. You may find it helpful to think about your writing personality and how an understanding of the writing process could enable you to become more productive and efficient.

Making a Scene: Showing and Telling

In expository writing, a paragraph is a basic building block. Its counterpart, in narrative writing, is the scene. You can bring your story alive by using scenes and summaries to show and tell what is happening

Arcs and Sparks: Character and Conflict

You need to think how your character changes, especially in an account that spans weeks, months or years. You also need to understand the nature and kinds of conflict, since the adage is true: “No conflict, no story.”

Sentencing without Offence: The Power of Sentences

The structure and variety of our sentences give our writing eloquence, music, and powerful impact. After years of speaking, we use sentences intuitively; we can write even better if we use them intentionally. 

Writing with Backbone: Story Structure and Pacing

Unless we are an orthopaedic doctor, we tend not to think about the skeletons of people we meet. Nor do we notice the backbone of the stories we enjoy. An understanding of dramatic structure helps us to see our life story’s backbone so we can manage the story’s pace and build reader interest.

Talking Pretty: Dialogue and Description

What is said (dialogue) and what is sensed (description) both contribute significantly to story scenes. Each of these, in turn, depends on careful observation and clear articulation. Improving these skills will help you to “talk pretty.”

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.