For almost a decade, Deanna was “going to write a memoir.” For almost a decade, she just didn’t really know where or how to start. She collected all kind of photos and dates and evidence of life memories over those long years, but breaking into the actual writing was intimidating, so, again and again, she’d start and quickly stop in one notebook or the next.
Then she got involved in a San Francisco memoir writing workshop that gave her the tools and the deadlines she needed to really get her feet wet and then dive fully into the process. In this class, week after week, she spent time with various writing exercises, and she learned to approach each individual step of life story writing rather than trying to approach it as a whole book about her life. Memoir writing prompts can give older adults a much-needed nudge as they overcome the initial hump and just get started.
How to Start Off a Memoir: Everyone’s Story Is Different
There isn’t one right way to write a memoir because everyone’s life story and creative process are unique. Deanna says that, for years, she was held down by the idea that the start of her book—even that very first line—had to be critically special and that she couldn’t live up to the great writers who had come before her. Then, in one of her classes, as she was warming up with a simple writing prompt that asked her to write about an ordinary observation in nature, she didn’t realize she was writing her book’s introduction until it was already done.
A dark brown spider the size of a pea is testing out the space between the arm of my chair and the potted plant 12 or so inches away. It’s establishing some early foundational threads but having to stop every handful of seconds and grip the silk, balling its body up against the wind. I look away for less than a minute, and when I look back, I can’t locate it. The spider has migrated to the space between the chair and the table. It tests. And then it moves again to find enough shelter from the wind’s natural rhythm and my own unpredictable vibrations and disruptions. I smile when I see that it has finally settled between a couple of the table’s own legs and begun to stretch its threads under the table top’s shelter.
How many tries did it take me? Six out-of-state moves before I found somewhere I could start building a lasting home around myself. I had to leave a lot of half-built lives along the way, but I always took away some invisible building blocks that I’d be able to lay down and start the foundation in the next spot. That won’t be the spider’s last neighborhood, but I hope this will be mine.
Experiment and Have Fun: Memoir Writing Prompts for Older Adults
Sometimes, the best way to get started writing your life story is to stop trying. Deanna found her groove when she let go, let herself warm up, and let herself play.
Think of the writing process itself as a playground, and each of the prompts below is a new area in which to play and explore. A slide isn’t just a structure to get you from one place to another, it’s also designed to inspire joy, suspense, and a healthy sense of fear. It’s smooth and can be hot or cold to the touch. It can give you a shock in the dry weather, and you’re never quite sure what your landing will be like on the other side. Are you willing to take a ride down with one of these little adventures?
- Can you recall your childhood best friend and some of the things you used to do together? Places you used to go? Ways you pulled your imaginations together?
- Close your eyes and take a tour back through some prominent places from your childhood: a house you grew up in, a relative’s house, a school, a store, a park where you used to play. The list could go on and on, and the rooms within the buildings would extend the tour as well. As you follow your memories through these places, what can you sense? Are there smells, sounds, textures, colors, or even tastes that come back to you?
- What were some traditions your family observed during your early life? Do any of those traditions survive to this day in your family?
- Describe a turning point in your life. Explore the past, present, and future around that experience.
- Which one of your parents—or perhaps another family member—are you most like? How do those similarities make you feel? What about you stands apart?
- Can you remember back to a conversation or interaction that inspired you? See if you can return your imagination to that experience and then write about it from that place of inspiration.
- What was one of your favorite songs from long ago that comes with strong memories or feelings? You may not still have your original playback method, but you can probably find the song by searching the title and artist online. If you can locate it, set aside some time to listen to it (maybe even on repeat), and then, while it’s still playing or in silence afterward, explore the memories and feelings that arise. Let them dance onto your page as they follow their own rhythm.
- Choose something that is important to you. It could be anything from a cherished relationship to a souvenir you brought home from a special trip. Begin by writing about that thing, and then see where your thoughts naturally take you from there.
With any and all of these prompts, don’t become attached to a certain outcome. Don’t hold yourself to a certain expectation of what your story should look like or get intimidated because this little exercise is only a small start toward a larger project. Instead, set the intention to enjoy yourself and the process along the way. It’s worth it to try life-story writing because it’s worth it to explore your life! Try to put that second consideration first. If you’re wondering how to start off a memoir, don’t get hung up on the memoir itself; instead, get in touch with what’s really interesting: you and your life story.
At Institute on Aging, we get to share and take part in so many inspiring life stories. We would be honored for you to join our community too and to discover the richness of daily storytelling with diverse friends. To learn more about our programs or to unearth more exciting activity ideas, get in touch with us!