Author offers some great memoir writing tips

By Michael Raffety 1-2-12

This column appeared weekly from Oct. 17, 1986, to July 15, 1991. Then I restarted it July 5, 2007, as a biweekly column.

In almost 10 years of column writing most of it is autobiographical. It’s the only thing I write for this paper in the first person.

Back in the 1980s I wrote about my children. I wrote about T-Ball and outfield posey pluckers, something which irritated my son, who was big enough to hit the ball and motor around the bases with little urging. He was no posey plucker. In the first grade he was so tall that the teacher had to get him a sixth-grader’s desk.

I wrote about my daughter’s fifth grade band concert. With all the instruments playing the same tune, it sounded like a kazoo band. That got some sarcastic remarks from the band teacher to my daughter. I think the band teacher got even with me when my son was in high school. He played the trombone. When there was a conflict between a basketball game and a band concert I had to take him to the band concert or else he would get knocked down a grade. It happened that he had a cold sore and couldn’t play the trombone at that concert, but I had to take him all the way out to Pleasant Valley School and watch a band concert where he was just handing instruments to the girls in his section. That was the end of band. There weren’t going to be any conflicts with high school basketball games. He eventually got a basketball scholarship to UOP.

I always got comments about how people enjoyed reading about my children when they were young. It reminded them of when their children were young.

More recently I have written about my time in the Navy  when I was in Antarctica and when I was a cab driver in San Francisco. I don’t know if I’ve written about my Mediterranean cruise on an aircraft carrier. I have some penguin pictures a reader brought me and which I plan to use in a future column, about my Antarctic vacation on a Coast Guard icebreaker.

I’ve also written about travels my wife and I have taken Back East and to Quebec and fantastic art exhibit openings in San Francisco.

Basically, it’s mostly a personal memoir, though I also like writing about history, such as famous women of El Dorado County. My last weekly column July 15, 1991, was about the old high school on Grandview Street. I even knew some folks who attended that school.

Author Denis Ledoux sent me a press release with some really good tips for writing one’s memoirs.

“More and more ordinary people are discovering that memoirs make a meaningful legacy to leave to the next generation, and that writing them is a rewarding hobby with many benefits for families and communities,” Ledoux wrote.

“I’ve never met a person who couldn’t turn personal and family stories into interesting, well-written accounts,” Ledoux wrote.

He is something of an expert on the subject, being the author of “Turning Memories Into Memoirs, A Handbook for Writing Lifestories,” (Soleil Press, 2006, 3rd Edition).

“When you write your stories down, you’re doing more than recording the who, what, where, and when. You are also affirming and celebrating your hopes and dreams by rediscovering the why and how of your life. Writing can lead to insight and self-understanding that bring peace and even healing. Of course, some insights and some stories may be too personal to share. But there is much your grandchildren will never know about you and their heritage unless you remember — and write.”

“When you are writing your lifestory, it’s not the Pulitzer Prize you’re going for! You are going for legacy.”

Here’s Ledoux’s handy-dandy writing tips:

  1. “First, make a Memory List of all your life’s important events and relationships. Your Memory List can have hundreds of items. When you sit down to write a story, you’ll have this list of topics handy.”

My favorite nonfiction writer, John McFee, transfers all his quotes and facts onto 3-by-5 index cards. Then he tacks them up on a bulletin board. Once he decides the order he takes them down and stacks them up accordingly. After that the story pretty much writes itself — one index card at a time.

  1. “Start anywhere you feel like starting. Choose your most important or interesting Memory List item. Write anything you want to about it. Resist the urge to write ‘from the beginning.'”

The fancy schmancy literary term for that is “in media res,” starting in the middle of the thing. Most successful novels and biographies begin at some point other than in the beginning. It may work for the Bible, but the rest of us aren’t writing the history of the Israelites.

“Concentrate on one story at a time, not on your life as a whole. Remember: inch by inch, it’s a cinch! Yard by yard, it’s hard!”

  1. “Use all the props you can: letters, diaries, obituaries, photos, newspaper articles, etc. You might just not be as much of an expert on your own lifestory as you think, so interview people who were there to crosscheck your facts and dates.”

My son has memories that, we swear he made up. He claims we forced him into basketball. We just provided him opportunities to play every sport with no expectations. He could really kick a soccer ball, but would often fall backward after kicking it, at least when he was just starting out. We almost fell over laughing ourselves. He was great at baseball. The Little League coach who put him in the outfield was an idiot. He could throw a runner out at home from the junior league right field. Where he went wrong was when he bought catcher’s gear from a friend. Seduced by the gear, he became a catcher. His freshman year in high school he was the only 6-foot-5-inch catcher in the league. Not too many tried sliding home against him. He really should have been a pitcher or first baseman. Going from baseball practice to basketball practice, he eventually chose one sport, basketball. Though he did play high school volleyball for fun. He didn’t like me telling his college basketball coach that he was all-league in volleyball.

Ledoux advises, “Research your locale, your region, the era, history, etc., to give authenticity and context to the personal story you tell. Add a lot of general ingredients to season your personal stories.”

My wife loves to tell the story of her great-grandmother who would ice-sail from one town to another with her brothers in Wisconsin. What an exciting life she had. Most people in her town spoke German. My wife tells me she still had a German accent decades later in Placerville.

  1. “Tell the truth. Lifewriting is an exploration, a celebration, not an occasion to get even with people, or to alter things. At the same time, you also have a right to your privacy.”
  2. “Always be specific. Use proper names, give dates, describe in detail. You can’t give too many details! Don’t use vague or general adjectives or adverbs. (What does “nice” mean?) Use all five of your senses to help the reader see, smell, touch, hear, and even taste the moment as it was lived. Remember: Show, don’t tell. Present your story with specific action, dialog, and setting.
  3. “Set a schedule for yourself. Honor your writing time as you would any important appointment. Writing regularly is more important than writing for long periods at one sitting.
  4. “Create the props you need to support your new creative project: a writing desk, a cup of coffee, photo albums. Above all, be patient and enjoy yourself. Writing your stories is a valuable activity to invest in, a wonderful way to celebrate your life.”

To download the free 36-page Memory List Question Book, visit

Ledoux’s tips are great. I haven’t read his book, but if you are serious about starting your memoirs, it would be a worthwhile investment.

Just do one chapter or one column a week. Five hundred words a week add up to 26,000 words a year, and that sounds like a book to me.


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