A Trip Down Memoir Lane

A memoir is not a review of an entire life. It is merely a piece of that life – a snippet, a chunk, an event that has taken place during that person’s life. It's the snapshot, not the album. The events are told from that person’s point of view.

“The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that is usually vivid or intense.”
Zinsser,W (Ed). (1987). “Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft Of Memoir”

A memoir incorporates a sequence of feelings, thoughts and observations surrounding the chosen event. Often the writer comes to a personal reflection on this event.

How does this event reflect my life?

What feelings, thoughts and observations are keys to this event?

In teaching students to write a memoir piece, it is important for the writer to narrow the topic before commencing the task of committing words to paper.

To begin, it may prove beneficial to read examples of memoirs or have examples read to them before they begin to generate their own potential topics.It allows the student to adequately identify personal experiences that could be shared with others in a memoir

As part of the immersion in this writing form, you need to select and read aloud, examples of memoir. Following this, explain that when authors write a memoir there are certain elements that they include in the text.
Introduction, -in which the author shares important information about the setting, including the time and date of the experience. The information in the introduction usually answers –who, what, where, when and why. The next section lays out the detail of the selected event. Students need to outline and organize the events before writing them down. The final element is a concluding statement, which is an optional extra in a memoir. It may detail a lesson learned, an observation on life, a reflection on the event, following the passage of time.

Questions For Memoirists

• What are your earliest memories?
• How far back can you remember?
• What have you seen that you can’t forget?
• What’s an incident that shows what your family and you are like?
• What’s an incident that shows what your friends are like?
• What’s something that happened at school that you’ll always remember?
• What’s something that happened to you at home that you ’II always remember?
• What’s an incident that changed how you think or feel about something?
• What’s an incident that changed your life?
• What’s a time or place where you were perfectly happy?
• What’s a time or place where you laughed a lot?
• What’s a time or place when it felt as if your heart was breaking?
• What’s a time with a parent that you’ll never forget?
• What’s a time with a grandparent that you’ll never forget?
• What’s a time with a brother or sister that you’ll never forget?
• What’s a time with a relative that you’ll never forget?
• Can you remember a time you learned to do something for the first time?
• What memories emerge when you make a time line of your life so far?
• What are the most important things that have happened to you each year of your life?

Adapted from Lessons That Change Writers, Nancie Atwell

Using The Memoirist Questions

Challenge your students to undertake the following task for their homework:

For at least 30 minutes one evening using the list ‘Questions For Memoirists,’ sit quietly and consider the possibilities. Begin by considering each question carefully. Look for ideas that will activate your memory bank. Capture broad topics as they emerge and write them as a bulleted list under the heading “ Possible Memoir Experiences” in your notebook. At this stage don’t feel compelled to go into details. Just use as many words as you need to preserve the essence of each memory. These broad topics will become a vital reference when you begin writing your memoirs.

Follow Up

Gather students in small groups with their notebooks and pencils and invite them to take turns at describing to one another the broad memories they have recorded. They may consider jotting down new memories that emerge as they listen to the recollections of their peers. This is making use of activated knowledge.

As the teacher your role is to circulate among them to listen and enjoy the material and help them to maintain the focus. Allow about ten minutes for this task. Following this reconvene as a class and lead a discussion among the whole class. Get them to focus on the questions from the prepared list that helped them uncover interesting memories. Invite them to talk about the specific questions and how those questions helped them to research their own lives.

Take a moment to get them to look at their own list of memoir experiences.
What did they discover?
Were they surprised by what you found?
Invite them to talk about the unexpected treasure that surfaced when they mined their past?

….Now they are ready to write in more detail on one of their listed

“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Willa Cather, Novelist.


  1. Glad to have you as a part of Memoir Mondays! :)


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