8 things to write in your memoir

Little Me

Little Me

Everyone wants to write a memoir. But nobody knows where to start.

Here’s a writing tip: Start with the easy, nonfictional facts of growing up.

1. Write about the street where you lived. Draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in – or the house you remember best, or the one where you lived at age 9.
2. Describe rooms, closets, porches, pianos, the kitchen table. Mention the art or cracks that decorated the walls. Draw the paths to the front and back doors. Draw the sidewalk where you jumped rope.
3. As you write, consider the sounds, smells, tastes and feelings the house evokes. Write about the smell of sauerkraut or your father’s pipe tobacco. Write the sounds of a squeaky floorboard, the screen door slamming, your sister stomping her snow off her boots on the landing, the parakeet calling.
4. Write about the smooth velvet of the wing chair. The swish of beaded curtains. The steam rising from a pot of soup. The cold kitchen when no one prepared dinner. The lightning outside your bedroom window.
5. Write about the people and their activities. Show your mom leaning over the tub, giving the twins a bath. Show grandmom letting you taste the peaches as she makes preserves. Explain your disgust when Uncle Charlie demands a kiss in exchange for one measly tootsie roll. Depict Dad hammering as he builds a set of shelves for your room.
6. Write what happens in each space. Describe lying on your sister’s bed on Saturday morning, listening to the radio and playing with the parakeet. Write that you are kneeling on a stool, helping Mom make kreplach or gnocchi or kielbasa. Create a picture of yourself leaning on the bathroom door, whining for your brother to hurry up.
7. Tell how you feel in each space. Explain where you go when you feel sad. Mad. Scared. Write the details of the space where you dance and do homework.
8. Once you write these factual details, force yourself to dig deeper than the surface recollections. Now you can write what you were really feeling at the time.

And here’s an idea: Be a bag lady. Save every idea that comes to you: in a bag, a box, a diary or a Word document. Save them now. Write them later.

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.

Use positive words when writing

A Canadian dollar coin is a Loonie, because it pictures the loon. A Canadian 2-dollar coin is a Toonie.

A Canadian dollar coin is a Loonie, because it pictures the loon. A Canadian 2-dollar coin is a Toonie.


Set a positive tone by writing positive words.

Choose positive words to soften messages. Write positive to words to make you or your organization seem friendly and interested.

Imagine yourself as a reader. What would you like to read? Set the tone for what you write by using positive expressions.

Positive words          
appreciate   benefit   capable   commendable   cooperation   efficiency excellent   please   reliable   sincerity   thanks   thoughtful

Negative words
blame   carelessness   complain   decline   disappointment   doubtful   fail   failure   impossible   neglect   unfair   vague   wrong


These negative sentences might annoy readers or damage the relationship between you and your readers. Try to revise them so they sound friendlier.

1. We must have a copy of your specifications by October 15 or we will be unable to deliver the product on time, the date we firmly agreed on last month.

2. You must sign the contract on the dotted line and return one copy to us within seven days.

3. We are unable to assure that equipment because you failed to enclosed precise specifications, including the serial number, and the original sales receipt.

Write active verbs

surrender dorothy

The Wicked Witch uses skywriting to warn Dorothy.

She doesn’t beat around the bush by saying, “You ought to surrender” or “You should surrender if you know what’s good for you.” She just commands Dorothy to capitulate.

That’s how you should tell people what to do, too. The word imperative comes from the Latin word imperare, which meant to command. From that root we get the words emperor and imperial.

So use imperative verbs give instructions or commands. Imperative verbs are “bossy” words. Examples: Put down the glass. Send in the clowns. Surrender, Dorothy.

When writing technical manuals or driving directions for print manuals or websites, start every instruction with an imperative verb.

  • Use an imperative, or command, verb to tell someone to do something.
  • Call a cab.
  • Give me the marker.
  • Click the left side of the mouse.
  • Start each instruction with a bullet.
  • End each bullet with a period.
  • Choose from the menu bar.
  • Turn left at the second light.
  • Pull the tubing out of the socket and into the purifier.

If you are editing an earlier version of a manual, convert every instruction to the imperative. That makes every entry parallel with each other – and thus easier to follow.

  • ORIGINAL: If a Tyvek cover is found within the flexible hose or spool piece, it must be re-cleaned prior to use.
  • REVISION: If you find a Tyvek cover within the flexible hose or spool piece, clean it before using it.

If the manuscript contains negative instructions, change them to positives if possible.

  • ORIGINAL: Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
  • REVISION: Stay in jail.
  • ORIGINAL: Don’t touch that knob.
  • REVISION: Avoid contact with the knob.
  • ORIGINAL: Do not enter.
  • REVISION: Wait your turn before entering the private offices.

Now: Just do it.

Edit your own copy. Cut with courage. Rewrite with enthusiasm.

do not flush frivolously

Re-write: Tighten, tighten, tighten.

Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel, may have written this:

“It has often been said there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs
is making a chore for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh of the reader’s relief is.”

You just need to learn exactly how to cut.

  • Change most verbs from passive voice to active.
  • Delete adverbs and adjectives.
    • Use one highlighter to identify adjectives, another color to illuminate adverbs.
    • Now read your work without them.
    • Can you eliminate them?
  • Use verbs instead of nouns. Compare these sentences:
    • He took up a collection for charity.
    • He collected money for charity.
    • In each case, the second sentence uses two fewer words and provides more information.

Long sentences may be appropriate for serial killers but not for you.