How to Write Your Memoir with Fun, Easy Lists

how to write your memoir with lists

Today’s guest post is by Cyndy Etler (@cdetler), author of The Dead Inside, a YA memoir about the sixteen months she spent in Straight Inc., an adolescent treatment program described by the ACLU as “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”

So you’ve got this life, and it’s an interesting one. It’s taught you a few things, and you’d like to share them with the rest of us. You know it, we know it: you need to write a memoir. Except…the mere thought floods you with anxiety. You’ve got decades of memories; where would you even start? Lists to the rescue! This step-by-step process will guide you through organizing and writing your memoir with a series of fun, easy lists.

1. Get your mind right.

Before we tackle our first list, we need to discuss mindset. In today’s hyper-stimulating culture, we feel the constant thrum of panic. We rely on lists to create calm from our mental chaos. So this mandate might seem counterintuitive, but to complete this process, you must let your brain run free and allow yourself to unleash chaos on the page. We’ll pull the diamonds from the soil later and use them to create your memoir’s outline.

Here’s what to do: give yourself permission to write your lists with quick, uncensored bullet points. Don’t let your brain ask questions. Don’t let it ban you from writing “those” things. You’re going to gush out each thought in the order and style it comes to you, and keep writing until there are no more pictures in your head. Did you shut all of your mental filters down? Okay, let’s write.

2. Create a big list of memories.

Our first assignment is fun and freestyle: you’re going to list every memory that comes to mind. Remember, trust yourself. The memories that pop up now will be the memories you’re meant to write about now. As an example, here’s a short version of my list.

  • Gross PB & honey sandwiches
  • First cig town pool
  • “Motivating”
  • “Baby We Can Do It”
  • Jacque bathroom corner mother
  • Strip search
  • “That’s not my house. That’s not my mother.”
  • Bigwheel
  • Running away

Notice: my bullet points are short, which allows my pen to keep moving. And they don’t make sense to you, which is fine. Now, you go. And go. And go.

3. Establish the life categories.

You’re back! Did you empty your head? Perfect. You probably have pages of memories, zigzagging between eras and experiences. Some of them will find a place in this memoir; others most likely will not. Now we’re going to step into that “creating order from chaos” mode I promised, but again, you need to get your mind right.

Step 3a: You need to loosen your brain up enough to listen to your writing, with no judgment, no “shoulds.” Pretend the words in your lists are speaking to you in sonar; your job is to perceive what they’re saying in their voice, rather than in your brain’s logical, linear one. Your creative subconscious knows what it’s doing; you just have to trust it enough to hear and obey its suggestions. You cool with that? Okay, now…

Step 3b: Read through your list with this question in mind: how am I mentally categorizing these memories? Do you think, “This was high school; this was college” or “This is when I was goth; this is when I was an eco-warrior” or “This is when I was single; this is when I was dating Pat” or…? In addition to noting how you categorize, note what your specific categories are. I remember events according to where I lived, so my categories would be Norwalk, Stamford, Monroe, Straight Inc.

Step 3c: And now we begin the organizing. Write each of your category titles at the top of a fresh pageif you’re using notebook paper leave a few pages between each category—and go through your list of memories again, copying each bullet point onto its category page. My mini-list would look like this, but yours will be way longer:

Page 1: Norwalk

  • Gross PB & honey sandwiches
  • Bigwheel

Page 2: Stamford

  • “Baby We Can Do It”
  • “That’s not my house. That’s not my mother.”

Page 3: Monroe

  • First cig town pool
  • Jacque bathroom corner mother
  • Running away

Page 4: Straight Inc.

  • “Motivating”
  • Strip search

Done? Now flip through those pages and tell me you don’t feel good. Ten bucks says you feel calm and accomplished. As well you should, because you know what you just did? You just wrote your memoir’s basic outline!

4. Start writing.

Step 4a: Put your brain back in wide-open receptive mode. Your next task is to read through your lists of categorized memories, listening for that single memory that’s calling out, “Me! Pick me!” There will be at least one; circle it. If there’s more than one, go back and reread each one you circled, sensing for which gives you the most tingle.

Step 4b: And now the real fun starts. Open to a fresh page, give your brain permission to write uncensored, and start writing about the memory you circled. Don’t worry about plot or structure or any literary thing; just relive that memory on the page. Write whatever you see and hear and smell and taste and feel.

Step 4c: When you’ve drained that one, look back at your lists. Listen for the next memory that’s calling out to you. Go back to it, relive it, write it all out. Repeat. Keep filling pages with those memories. This step can go on for days, weeks, months…

5. Ask questions about the narrative.

…until you start feeling itchy and overindulged. When you find yourself thinking things like, “Writing these memories is fun, but where is it all going?”—it’s time to create your map.

Step 5a: You’re going to pose some questions to yourself, but don’t expect immediate answers. If they come, write them down. Otherwise, just leave the questions on brain simmer. The answers will float up as you complete the next steps. So. Pose the following questions to yourself:

  • What is the starting moment of this story?
  • What do I most want at the time of these memories?
  • What is the moment where I definitively get, or don’t get, my “big want”?
  • What is the lesson I learned?                                                                          

Step 5b: Go into fine-tune listening mode again, but this time, think of your brain as a butterfly catcher. When the answers come, they might be fleeting and subtle. Be ready to catch them as you reread your pages of memory-writing, listening for the answer to the questions in 5a (starting moment; big want; moment you get, or don’t get, your big want; lesson learned).

Step 5c: Write down any answers that come up. My answers would be,

  • What is the starting moment of this story? Walking by my childhood home, convinced the other kids magically know what happens to me inside it. Swearing to them, “That’s not my mother. That’s not my house.”
  • What do I most want at the time of these memories? To have a place in a safe, loving family.
  • What is the moment I get/don’t get my big want? When my mother leaves me at Straight Inc.: the strip search.
  • What is the lesson I learned? “Bad” kids are actually kids who need love, badly.                                                              

6. Begin a narrative arc.

It’s the moment our anxious brains have been waiting for. We’re going to organize your free-floating ideas into a nice, clear roadmap for your memoir. It’s time to create your narrative arc—the beginning of your story, the rising action, the climax moment everything builds up to, and the wrap-up scenes.

Step 6a: Open to a fresh sheet of paper—yes, actual paper—and sketch yourself an arc, like this:

Step 6b: In sound-bite form, write your starting moment at the lower left point, the moment you did or didn’t get your big want at the peak, and the lesson learned in the space to the far right, like this:

narrative arc

Step 6c: I like to circle or highlight the lesson learned, to reinforce to my subconscious, “Every scene is pointing toward this.”

7. Complete the narrative arc.

At this point you’ve got all these pages written, so you’re feeling secure and confident. Your brain knows where it’s going; it’s been going there the whole time you’ve been writing about single memories. Trusting your brain is now easy. From this place of strength, you’re going to complete your roadmap, by filling the arc in with the pivotal memories that drive the story forward, all the way up to the moment it’s clear that you did, or did not, get what you most wanted. Here’s how:

  • Step 7a: Pose this question to yourself: What were the major events that either helped or hurt my attempts to get my big want?
  • Step 7b: With that question in mind and a bright-colored pen in hand, reread your categorized lists of memories, circling those events that shout, “Me! I was a major event!”
  • Step 7c: …and now, reread those bright-pen-circled memories, putting an asterisk by the five to eight most pivotal among them.
  • Step 7d: and now, write those five to eight memories, sound-bite size, along the rising line of your arc. It will look something like this:

8. Assemble the parts.

So…do you have any idea what you’ve got at this point? Well. Let’s have a look. You have…

  • A huge list of memoir writing prompts (your big list of memories).
  • A stack of completed memoir pages (your sensory writing about single memories).
  • Your memoir’s plot (the narrative arc) complete with opening scene (the first event), conflict (your big want, and the struggle to get it), rising action (the big events ascending your arc), climax (the moment you got, or didn’t get, your big want), and theme (the lesson you learned).
  • The ability to trust your creative subconscious to guide your writing.
  • The ability to step back from your own experience and assess it objectively (noting how you categorize your life; choosing the most pivotal memories for your arc).
  • The ability to edit your thoughts down to sound-bite size (filling in the events on your arc).
  • And a complete, detailed roadmap to get you to your completed memoir!

Step 8a: From here, all you need to do is repeat steps three and four—reading through and selecting the next memory, and writing it out using the five senses—guided by the events on your roadmap.

Step 8b: And when you get that itchy, overindulged feeling—“I’m having too much fun writing!”—gather your pages, arrange them in the order of events on your map, and read your new material, making sure it’s heading toward your climax and adding lines, as needed, to connect one memory to the next.

Step 8c: When you’re done—when you’ve written about each memory along your roadmap, as well as the smaller memories leading up to them—know what you’ll have? A completed first draft. Know what you won’t have? An anxiety attack. Because lists. They work like magic.

The Actual Magic

Spoiler alert: don’t read if you don’t want to know the “trick” that makes this work!

This process is the writing version of dessert before dinner. The writing begins in an exciting, no-pressure format: recounting single, vivid memories. What could be easier? Because we’ve freed our brains from the heavy mandates of literary structure—Plot. Theme. Voice. Dialogue. Denouement.—our words flow, fast and easy. Before we realize what’s happening, we have the meat of our memories all written, and we have the confidence of having written pages and pages. At that point, we just have to slip the spine through the meat, maybe move some ribs around; bulk up around the legs; slim down around the middle. But the hard part—the sitting down and writing through the intimidation of—gulp—writing a whole book? We did that, without even realizing it! When we read all our pages, feeling the self-assurance that comes with achievement, the heavy literary must-dos become clear and obvious. We read them between the lines of our own writing.

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