• Dr. Jill Bakke

Memoirs: Tips + Tidbits


How many of you are writing memoirs? What is your focus? Sometimes we take too big of a bite to write about.

Instead, consider a particularly memorable time of your life. Some of the areas my memoir students have focused upon include: their years in military service; a specific employment they worked at; meeting and marrying; a health challenge; becoming a single parent; and growing up.

Several students decided to do their entire life and wrote autobiographies. This is a harder task and a longer, more time consuming one to complete. It took the two who chose this method more than 20 years to complete them. My suggestion is to pick a smaller time; then when it you have finished that, if you chose, you can add another section to it.

Whatever you select, here are some important considerations.

  • IMPORTANT: Check spelling of places and names, and accuracy of dates.

  • Don’t make assumptions; assumptions are unknowable interpretations. Unless we know for sure why someone acted the way they did, leave the “why” up to the reader to consider.

  • Is the person you show in your memoir truly you? Or is it the person you wish you were? How can you tell the difference? Using generalities instead of specifics is one way. Whitewashing actions is another. If you were angry, say so. Go for the gut. Tell the truth about self and the people in your memoir.

  • Make your writing come alive! If there is anger, sadness, depression or fear show it. Show the actions of self or another by word choices like “Her eyes twinkled with laughter as she told my mother about my mischief” or “I trembled as I shouted at the man who had almost hit my daughter with his truck.”

  • Don’t just tell it. You are not writing fiction but you still should use the devices fiction writers use or you run the danger of having a dull memoir. Use your senses in writing. What do things smell like? What do things taste like? What do things sound like? What do things feel like?

  • In showing you might use similes or metaphors. Similes compare unlike things. The comparison words used are “like” and “as.” For example, “My depression rolled over me like a gray blanket.” Or “I felt as peaceful as the moss on the rock that lay at my feet.” Metaphors compare two things which have something in common. The Aerosmith song “Amazing” had lyrics that give us an easy example of a metaphor: ‘Life’s a journey, not a destination.” Both forms give your reader a picture in words.

  • Use active voice as much as possible. It moves the writing along. Passive voice uses Passive Subject+To Be+Past Participle, i.e. “I was given my diploma in 1999.” The diploma is the topic. Make it a true subject. It could simply be corrected “I received my diploma in 1999.” But how about “Receiving my diploma from the University of Michigan in 1999 felt satisfying” or “In 1999, when I received my diploma from the University of Michigan, I threw my hat into the air with relief.” There are a number of ways to correct passive voice and the three I offer as examples are only three among many.

In closing a word about voice. So many people ask what voice refers to and how to find that voice. Voice develops from the innate character of the writer. We all have filters and see things differently, both who we are now and who we were back then. We write EVERYTHING according to these inner qualities. Learning to inject feeling into our writing from these qualities is one of the keys to good writing. This is what creates our voice.

I would love to have you offer your suggestions on these blogs, ask a question, tell your experience. It would make my day begin with a big smile. Thanks for reading.

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 Jill@DrJillBakke.com

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