6 Keys to Writing a Captivating Memoir

Written stories have captivated humans for centuries and this practice has adapted to the digital world we live in. Whether you’re considering writing a book or for an online platform, it’s important to take your audience into account.
Especially if you’re writing a memoir!

Writing a memoir can be an exhilarating experience. Detailing some of the most interesting moments you’ve lived can help revive old memories and show a side that your friends and family have never seen before.

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Art of Ageing – Julie Slavin

Photographer, painter and alternative life-styler Julie Slavin has been involved in the art scene for many years from Sydney to San Francisco and back to the bush in regional New South Wales.

Julie Slavin with a selection of photos for the ‘Art of Ageing’ exhibition, promoting the value of older Australians.

She works for the Manning River Regional Art Gallery and is an erstwhile press photographer.

A number of her insightful images were selected for the ‘Art of Ageing’ exhibition currently touring NSW (in 2018-19), which is sponsored by the NSW Department of Community Services.

She is one of only five photographers represented in this photographic exhibition that celebrates the value and contribution older people bring to very thread our society. Its purpose is to combat age discrimination; and it challenges out-dated perceptions of ageing. Her images show the energy and enthusiasm her subjects have for life – a wonderful antidote to negative perceptions of ageing and older people, while inspiring a positive vision of growing older.

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Look closer, see me!

We often talk about leaving a legacy, and the opportunity that a memoir provides to leave something of value to family and even to the world.

My book, Life is a Story: How to write your memoir, talks about creating your ‘greatest gift’.

Sometimes one of my LifeStoryWriting clients will ask how their story can possibly make a difference in the broader sense. ‘How can I hope to leave my mark to more than just a small handful of people? I am not famous, not a published author. Who would want to hear from me?’

Yet it happens. Miraculously and magically it happens. Especially in the technological age. The playing field for information in the age of the internet is now much more level – it means a small voice can now be heard.

Here is an example.

In 1966 a Scottish geriatric nurse penned a poem which has since become an international sensation. It was originally called Look Closer, and was a plea from an elderly patient to her nurses.

The old lady was not well-known, and it was felt that among her meagre possessions there was nothing of any value. That is, until the nurse, Phyllis McCormack of Montrose (near Dundee) came to the scene with this beautifully eloquent poem.

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You know Roger Federer?

Writer/memoir coach Mark Koehler discusses sport, health and living well on a visit to Vietnam.

On holiday overseas I look around for some tennis courts but can’t find any. It’s the same story as previous cities I’ve visited in this strange hot and steamy country. In abbreviated English I say to a guy, “I am tennis player”. He has some basic English but still looks at me blankly.

“You know,” I say, “Roger Federer. You know him?” Another querying look. Three times now I’ve had this vacant conversation and they frown a little, not recognising the name.

I’m in a part of South-east Asia where tennis does not feature high on anyone’s agenda – or any sports’ news for that matter. Is the problem is my rudimentary language skills. Or is it my Aussie accent? Maybe, but for goodness sake, how many different ways can you say ‘Roger Federer’?

It is Vietnam. The people are lively and happy, but are not generally into sport. They’re too busy making a living, so they just work. They do not share our crazy Australian obsession with all things sport. Even swimming at one of their world-class beaches is a minority pastime because most folk have never learnt to swim!

I miss sport, even if it’s my fascination with (armchair) cricket. Instead I’ve become the inquisitive tourist.

We Aussies of course derive great benefit from our recreational pursuits – we study it, discuss it at length. We might compete, travel away for weekends, build friendships, stretch tired muscles – sometimes too much.

But not the Vietnamese. They do not indulge in such frolicking behaviour. Yet they know how to stay healthy and fit – much more than the average Australian. They could teach us a few things about living well. Read more

Gill Hicks “our legacy is everything”

Australian Gill Hicks was the last living victim rescued from the July 2005 London bombings. Both her legs had to be amputated below the knee, and her injuries were so severe she wasn’t expected to live.

On a recent ABC ‘One-plus-one’ interview, Jane Hutcheon asked this question: “After everything you have been through Gill, what’s life about?”

Hicks answered: “Building a legacy, because if you build a legacy, then you never die.

As we write our memoir we cannot escape this invisible pull to leave something of value to others; to create a legacy.

For Gill Hicks, perhaps that the old parable of ‘Footprints in the sand’ has attained some significance, and this is reflected in her thoughts on the subject a little later in the ABC One-plus-one interview: She says, “Footprints have really effected me. And it effected me when I first came back to Australia. I stood on the ground and I realised I would never feel the soil again. So I started to think a lot about, ‘What does a footprint mean? And how can I create something that is a different impression?’ And so I then understood that actually our legacy is everything. It’s what helps us continue.’

As part of her legacy, Gill works as a curator, publisher and motivational speaker. She continues to inspire others with messages on overcoming difficulty and promoting peace.

Uncomfortable truths in memoir

There is the story of an American family who commissioned a memoir ghostwriter to write their dad’s autobiography, but they insisted he soft-pedal the case of their dad’s brother, Fred. The late Uncle Fred’s life of crime ended with his death in the electric chair, a source of deep family shame.

It was an embarrassing truth so the ghostwriter ‘soft-shoed’ or spun the story thus: “Uncle Fred occupied a chair of applied electronics in one of our leading government institutions.  He was held to the post by the closest ties and his death came as a real shock”.

Agassi: tennis reflects life

As a tennis player, my view of the world has been pretty narrow at times. It’s like seeing the world within four fences around a tennis court. In his acclaimed memoir André Agassi reflects on tennis as a ‘lifetime in miniature’. And he has a point. Seeing life through a tennis filter. Perhaps it’s to be anticipated after hundreds of thousands of hours on court.

His autobiography, Open discusses this microcosm of life, and it’s a heck of a read:

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a lifetime in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.

As a ‘tennis obsessive’, I wonder: Maybe there is more to life than tennis? So next long weekend I might give tennis a miss. Cast the competitive instinct aside for a few days and chill out. Go camping, catch a fish, relax. Sit by a campfire and meditate on the state of the world, without tennis. Nothing combative. A world of nature where the universe is in harmony. Ahhhhhh. Now that’s the life! Peace and goodwill to all. Read more

Why write a memoir?

It’s a question that fascinates many older folk. Should I write my memoir? And what really motivates people to explore their life story? Won’t I appear to be self-absorbed or egotistical?

These are questions answered by a new book entitled Life is a Story: How to write your memoir by Mark Koehler. The book uncovers the two main driving forces for memoir writing.

They are to grow, and to give. The first one, to grow, is about self-exploration. We nut out our story and in the process we learn more about ourselves. It is a road through exciting and creative territory. By writing, we find out what we think. Seems weird doesn’t it? Like it’s the wrong way around. The happy benefit is that we begin to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Patterns emerge. Perhaps we have happened upon the wisdom of loving and living well.

Self-exploration has been a consuming interest for actor Shirley MacLaine, author of thirty-six books. In an interview with Barbara Walters she talked about the process of self-discovery:

“I know that one’s investigation of self can be the most important investigation one ever makes … I find that with my life, the older I grow, the more understanding I have of what is going on around me. I wouldn’t want to go back to even last week and be one week younger, because I grow every week … I’m getting stretched between my feet on the ground and my head in the stars.”

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The Luddite Within

The age of technology has caught us unawares.

The Luddite Within
Note the Yellow Pages (and intended ‘use’).

In the 1980s, the progression from typewriter to word-processing on the computer was a quantum shift. The QWERTY keyboard did not change, but everything else did.

At the time, I used an old manual cast-iron Remington typewriter that I had bought second-hand for $30 from a girl’s school. The secretarial studies classes had upgraded to electric typewriters years before and they were left with a pile of these contraptions clogging up a store room.

I thumped the circular keys downward and the hinged metal arm thwacked against the inked ribbon and a sheet of paper on a rubber roller. At the same time as the key hit the paper, the carriage trundled one space to the left, character by laborious character. Though I was doing a journalism degree, a speed-typist I was not. As far as words per minute, my late into-the-night typing speed could be expressed as, well, leisurely. Thwack, thwack-thwack, thwack. Like the interspersed staccato sound of musketry. The loneliness of the long distance typist.

As the words on the line approached the right-hand edge of the page, I would estimate the space available and if I could fit the next word in, type again (thwack thwack), or think about hyphenating it, then lift my left hand to the lever for the carriage and shove it to the right, and commence a new line. I should add that even then, electric typewriters had been around for thirty years (it’s just that they were so damned expensive). Read more

The beginning – a Prologue

We often see a book begin with a ‘Prologue’. Why is this? It’s usually because the author wants to start at a critical moment in their life, a turning point, and it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of the rest of the story. So it precedes ‘Chapter 1’.
Here is an extract from one of my client’s life stories. It’s a work in progress but has a lovely feel and engages the reader at an important moment in the writer’s life. Her name is Ros, and she has kindly agreed for it to appear here:

PROLOGUE  (by Ros L)

I watch you kneel in the dark, your lips moving silently as you bow at the altar of your God. Waving sticks of incense about your body in a fashion clearly familiar to you, yet so foreign to me, you move through the gloom, whispering incomprehensible words.  At the back of this cavernous space I stand motionless, not knowing where I should place my feet; petrified at the thought that I might offend you in this temple that is so sacred to you. Read more

Leaving a legacy

Is life just dust to dust? I don’t think so.

We all hope that our time on the planet will not be for nothing. We’d like to leave the world a better or richer place. There are many things we might leave behind after our passing: a wall built, a song recorded, a picture painted or a garden planted.

If you have left a legacy you have changed something, or created something. You will have left your mark. In the long run what will matter most? Possessions and wealth; or moments remembered. Will they remember the money or the love?

In fact there is something we can leave behind which extends our life. You know already what it is.

More valuable than money, it will live on and be passed along by our descendants. It is at your fingertips and within your grasp. It is also the greatest gift of all.

It is your life story. Read more

Opening lines

How wonderfully important they are! Take a look below at the beginning to Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Eakin (“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was 85”). Another favourite of mine is Puberty Blues by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette (“When we were thirteen, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn’t let you do. Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs, and go to the beach”).

And see how Andre Agassi starts his masterful autobiography, Open. (“I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am”). Wow. Or this, from Magda Szubanski (“If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin”).

Then there are classics like: My Place by Sally Morgan, and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.

Here are some pretty impressive openings, mostly autobiographical and mostly Australian.

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Jokes & quotes

King o the ranges cyclist 350x469Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. – Peter De Vries

I have CDO, it’s like OCD but all the letters are in alphabetical order . . . as they should be. – anon

The horizon is nothing but the limits of one’s sight. – anon

The technical term for “being unable to remember the word you want” is, uh . . . – anon

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Different types of editing

Stilettos beach 350x222There are many different approaches to the task of editing but these are the main ones.

Proofreading
Proofreading is the final check before publication. It looks at spelling, punctuation spacing and so on.

Copy-editing
Copy-editing is a light or medium edit. It aims to achieve accuracy, clarity and consistency in a document. Copy-editing looks at correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style (which includes capitalization, syntax and referencing).

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