Led an interesting life? Want to leave the unvarnished details to your heirs apparent long after you’ve left the building? Many of us want to write our life stories but the thought of putting it down on paper is daunting and so we self-censor, leaving all our glorious, harrowing, hilarious and yes, tragic moments that made up our years on earth lost to time.

We say write it down now! And to help, we’ve gone to the expert: Beth Kaplan teaches memoir and personal essay writing at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, where she won the Excellence in Teaching award. She is the author of three books: a biography, a memoir, and True to Life: 50 Steps to Help You Tell Your Story, a handbook about writing memoir that’s the textbook for her courses. 

Here are Beth’s seven tips on how to unearth significant memories and turn them into compelling stories.

1Begin with a Spielberg list.

Imagine the director wants to film your life story and asks you to list the 10 most important moments in your life, perhaps invisible to others but profoundly meaningful to you. This list gives you the arc of your life story, the basis of what you should write.

2. Start anywhere.

Don’t fuss with knowing where your story starts or ends. Early drafts are meant to be loose, meandering, clunky. Silence that negative voice in your head (“Who do you think you are?”), find a quiet place where what you write won’t be overseen and let words and thoughts flow. Listen to your past selves, to who you are now. Bring back your family’s stories. Paint the picture with words.

3Read widely, especially memoir and personal essays.

Be inspired by good writers.

4Once you have a stack of pages, reread, chop, rearrange, add, rewrite.

Writing is a messy, constantly evolving process that requires craft and technique. Use your critical editing skills to hammer sentences into shape. “A written work is never finished,” said Ellen Seligman, a revered editor. “It is finished enough.”

5Try using pen and paper for first drafts, computer for second ones.

Some feel that writing longhand is a slower rhythm that makes it easier to process thought.

6As Carol Shields said, “Blurt bravely.”

Don’t censor for fear of what others will think; you don’t have to make public what you write but, if it’s haunting you, get it down. Releasing important stories has been proven to be healthy psychologically and even physically. But though telling your truth is therapeutic, a memoir is not therapy. Readers don’t want raw emotion; they want dynamic, well-written scenes.

7Writing is solitary.

Find a mentor, writer’s group or editor to give you structure, support and feedback. There are good books, too, and online sites to help guide you.  Remember, there’s no need to publish; you can share with family, friends or writer’s group. But if you write with honesty and insight, passion and craft, your stories will matter.

A version of this story was published online on March 8, 2018.


Linwood Barclay on his Novels, Literary Goals and Advice to First-Time Writers