Tips for Writing Memoirs and Personal Essays

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I had lunch on Wednesday with a mentor who shares my passion for personal writing. Before we even walked out the door, he handed me a copy of a personal essay he’d recently written. We talked about the piece and bounced ideas off of each other to help ourselves better understand our direction as writers. I found our talk to be especially helpful, so I’m sharing what I learned. Feel free to add other tips to the list.

1.) Talk out loud about what you’re working on. Sometimes ideas can grow cobwebs when they remain in the recesses of our minds. Talk about your ideas to help cement them in your memory. Share them with someone who will give you genuine feedback.

2.) Don’t get overwhelmed by large chunks of time. When I think about periods in my life that I want to write about, I sometimes feel lost. “Where do I start?” I wonder. Instead of trying to cover a couple of years in one essay, think about one day, one moment, that sticks out in your mind. Why do you remember that moment? How is it representative of the larger span of time you want to write about? How will that day/moment help people understand you and the overall meaning of your piece?

3.) Think of a question that you want to answer by the end of the piece. Questions can serve as “narrative engines” that help you navigate your way through a piece. They could be, “What did I learn from this experience?” or “How has this experience shaped who I am today?” You don’t necessarily need to answer the question directly in the story, as doing so can sometimes lead to forced or sappy endings. At the very least, though, the answer should be something that you come to understand through the writing process.

4.) Interviewing family members, friends, etc. Take advantage of the power of memory, and don’t assume that your recollections are necessarily correct. Ask a family member to help you round out your memory of something and to verify that it’s accurate. If you both have different accounts that don’t match, tell each other what you remember and see if it leads to an agreement over what actually happened.

It’s easy to forget, perhaps because we didn’t pay enough attention to something, or because we’re trying to shield ourselves from the memories in life we’d rather not remember. Most readers won’t know if you’re telling the truth or not, but getting the facts of your life straight is still important; it’s a matter of being true to yourself and to the people and memories that have helped shape you.

5.) Get a shoebox. Fill it with meaningful objects that describe who you are, what you enjoy, what you couldn’t live without. It’s the box you’d grab in the wake of a house fire or a flood. When it comes time to write a personal essay, take out the box and write about one of the objects. Why is that object so important to you?

6.) Once you have an idea as to where you want your essay to go, try to organize its narrative structure. Story board, if you will, with a paper and pen or with sugar packets. Read more about former St. Pete Times reporter Tom French’s sugar packet method.

There you have it. I’ll keep adding more tips as I get them.

What challenges do you face when writing personal essays?