How to Write Memoir: Where to Start

HOW TO START? It’s a question I get all the time. Where to begin a piece of memoir?

A few years ago, while writing a book, I went behind the scenes in the world of forensic science, attending forensic entomology school, and blood-spatter-analysis class, and somehow managed not only to enter the morgue but to stay for a five-and-a-half-hour autopsy, my first.

And it was there, as the fear subsided, that I inched closer to the body of a man dead ten days, and marveled at the connection between things. In the big experience, it was the small things that changed me: The ribcage’s perfect arch harboring the heart made me weep; witnessing it felt like a near occasion to faith.

The morgue also presented some unique metaphors for understanding writing, the most profound of which was there in the spine: The vertebrae, those odd individual muffins of bone that hold us together. Take one out, weigh it in your hand, bounce it up and down and have a look at it, and that’s an essay, or a blog post, each of which must be as precisely designed as individual vertebrae. Snap that vertebra back into being an essential part of the spine and the spine is whole again, much like a long-form memoir.

Seeing our connections, considering them, describing them—that’s where writing what you know begins. I’m quite sure of that, as well as of a few more things, at least when it comes to writing memoir. Beginning memoir writers frequently think that the only place to begin is at the beginning — at their births. Not so. Look to the things that connect us. You’ll be amazed.

If you’d like to see what I did with my moments in the autopsy suite, see here, a piece I read on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.


  1. says

    I think birth is just about the worst place to begin a memoir. Unless there’s some real insight to be gained there or it’s an incredible story, best to leave that out. My own memoir starts on the eve of my 12th birthday and ends just before I turn 20. There are a couple of references to before that time period, but not many.

    The trick, I think, is to find the story and then select the pieces that tell that story. Once the story is your master, extraneous details–however important they may seem to you–are easy to leave out.

    • says

      HI, Brock. Welcome to the blog. You are absolutely right. Find your story and select only those experiences that drive that story forward, leaving everything else behind. It’s more about unpacking than it is about packing. Please come back soon for more discussion on writing memoir.

      • says

        After your workshop, and learning to make sure to keep a pen and and something handy to “write” at the moment of the thought. And that is how this was written:)
        And it was published today in our local paper:)
        The New Year’s Resolution – Diane Christin Zenchenko Esser

        Nope, this is not about the diet.

        Is there a room in the house that you call your study? Office? Dumping Ground?

        I have a one of those all the above. One room shoves all. It is a room that I warn children and adults that monsters reside behind that door, and the room must never be entered. Generally, that works.

        I am one of those people who sees things during the year that would make the perfect Christmas gift, and that is the room that the bag gets tossed into.. Receipt, and all. When it comes close to the holiday, I have my own personal Christmas sifting through all the accumulated affectionate treasures I have forgotten, and now need to wrap.

        And, that room is living proof that we need a more paperless planet. When I finally get to the three foot stack of non bills, which is primarily a lot of Department store circulars with expired coupons, I am pleased at all the money I didn’t spend on sales. Oh, and a foot of that stack was political mailings this year.

        Then, there are the unread magazines for lack of life minutes to read them, and all those great recipes just dying to dive out of the dungeon life they were relegated to. And the fitness magazines are true inspiration. My only exercise is my fingers flipping through them.

        Once a year, before the family gathers for the holidays, I make my New Year’s resolution, (once I rediscover the caramel carpet after digging out,)that I will keep it organized, pristine and clutter free. It is sincere, but probably delusional.

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