Whether it’s your first draft or the final edits of a memoir, starting Life Stories can be hard. Here’s what four of my favorite experts had to say. (You can read my opinion in Where to Start Telling Your Stories.)
Before examining the experts’ advice, let’s clarify the difference between types of legacy writing.
Autobiography and Biography versus other Legacy Writing
Other types of legacy writing—memoir, a collection of memories, family stories, or ancestor profiles—don’t have these constraints. That’s the good news. The story (or stories) can begin wherever you choose.
However, that freedom can make it hard to decide where to start your narratives.
Advice from Memoir Coaches on Starting Life Stories
Remember, the final decision is still yours. However, these experts give some great food for though.
William Zinsser (my favorite writing coach) on How to Get Started
In Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past (Da Capo Press, 2004), renown writing coach William Zinsser addresses starting the writing process.
He recommends writing down a memory a day for two months, choosing, “… whatever memory comes knocking.” Through that process, themes will emerge, helping you determine where to start. You’ll also see your style emerge as your writing becomes less stilted and self-aware.
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., President of the National Association of Memoir Writers
Memoir coach Linda Joy Myers’ article, The Top 6 Questions Memoirists Ask, has great insight for memoirists. A lot of that advice works for those of us telling other people’s stories as well.
When it comes to starting life stories, Dr. Myers recommends:
… Ask this question: when did my life take a turn from the direction it was going? When were the moments of profound change?
Make lists of these turning points and then begin writing. Choose one that grabs you emotionally and go with it. You do NOT have to write in any kind of chronological order. Allow your emotions to be your guide.
Memoirists and Memoir Coaches Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Bonnett and Butler run WomensMemoirs.com. They refer writers back to Elmore Leonard’s classic advice on starting life stories:
In his concise guide, 10 Rules of Writing, Mr. Leonard advises
Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
In Writing Tip: Advice on Finding the Start of Your Story from Elmore Leonard, Butler suggests using a trusted friend to determine what to cut. Read the proposed beginning of your story aloud and study your listener’s reaction. If you think she’s still waiting for the “real story” to start, cut what you’ve written. Butler writes, “Keep cutting until her eyes come into sharp focus and her keen interest is obvious.”
In other words, don’t start with background. Jump right into a story.
Joanna Penn on Starting Life Stories
NY Times bestselling author J.F. Penn, blogs at The Creative Penn, a site for nonfiction writing recommended by Writer’s Digest.
In her article 7 Mistakes To Avoid When Writing Your Memoir, Penn fine-tunes Elmore Leonard’s advice:
Rather than focusing on the events of the story, focus on the purpose of it, and steer what you choose to share toward that purpose. Just as you would in a novel, allow yourself to skip time, ignore meaningless events—and get to the good stuff.
What was your favorite advice (from this post or other sources) on where to start when it comes to writing about your past? Please share it in the comment section below.
 William Zinsser, Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past (Da Capo Press, 2004), 163.