Every life is unique. That sounds simple enough but, if you think about it, it is really quite astounding.

Most of us spend our lives living them, trying to get by as best we can, to be kind or successful, or kind and successful; raising children or growing communities or businesses, or all three. Most of us give very little thought to the uniqueness of our day to day until, that is, we think about writing our memoirs or journaling.

Journaling is something many of us do, but it is an activity that does not necessarily include the expectation of a reader. Writing in the broader sense, and memoir is included in this, always has the reader as an element. It is a symbiotic relationship, reader and writer, and every effort at writing is not only unique in itself, like the writer, but unique in its results because it is filtered through the uniqueness of the reader. This combination gives memoirs, especially those that are done well, a special element of creativity.

The memoir writer…

To some people, getting older, having an expanse of life and living to look back on, just naturally means that there is more time and more interest in documenting that life. So I was surprised when someone said to me “I don’t expect to have grandchildren so I don’t see any point in a memoir.” This was even more surprising because I know this woman has been active in her community and a contributor to local organizations for over thirty years. How strange, I thought, that she doesn’t know how many people will want to hear about how her favorite organizations developed and her part in them, especially since I know she is always interested in memoirs and journals preserved from earlier generations. The fact is, we sometimes have a hard time looking back at our lives and thinking of them as history.

Then there are the people who send their memoirs to LadybugPress or other publishers thinking that because they were told, “You ought to write a book” their personal stories are marketable. Most are not. A few are and the general guidelines for those would be: Does your story belong to someone the public is already interested in; are you a famous person? And does your story include proven elements, supported by academic or professional experience, that you can communicate well enough to help others with their own lives? Most memoirs do not qualify for these practical guidelines and the majority do not reach levels of literary quality that make them the exception to the practical rules.

Still, there is no underestimating the importance of memoirs written as history meant for a family or community. This is how we connect with the reality of our past. This is something we can give to the future no matter how simple or, seemingly, undramatic our life has been.

What are the differences between a memoir, a journal, and writing for the public?

Let’s begin with writing for the public since I have already dismissed that as a goal of this article. Writing for public consumption must follow certain constrains of style and language. There is an expectation of structure that even the most foreign reader can follow and understand. The same is true of language, the standards of good grammar and word use is most important when the audience is broad and unknown to the author. There is also the question of topics: As I said above, a marketable book must not only have interesting content but value to the reader.

Journal writing is the most personal writing you can do. In this form you are the focus of what you have to say, your emotions, random thoughts, fantasies… and nothing else matters. It is a liberating form and ideal for any kind of self exploration, including preparation for the other two forms, public writing and memoirs.

Then, there is memoir writing. A memoir is neither of the other forms, but the best memoirs combine features of each. A memoir is meant to be read by other people and, though some writers simply pass along their journals, I think it should be more formal than that. Structure and concern for language are necessary whenever we communicate with others. Yet, this communication is not at the distance we call public. It is still meant for an intimate circle of relatives, friends, or people who already have a common experience or interest.

How to start and where to finish

  • Start before the beginning
    Memoirs are often about a whole family’s story and if you do not have one from your parents it is a good idea to begin as far back in that story as your own information allows. On the other hand, there are families where memoir writing is already an established tradition. In that case your own story, while distinctly your own, becomes a new chapter in that tradition.
  • Don’t use your journals directly
    As I said, a journal is boundless while a memoir is meant to communicate. Excerpts from or reference to a journal can be invaluable in making a memoir accurate and, believe it or not, exciting to the reader, but most journals are not meant as memoirs and there is a very good reason for that.
  • This is a good place to use e-book technology (pictures)
    These days we expect pictures to be a part of a major project, such as a memoir, and the more the merrier. At LadybugBooks.com we have had memoir writers come to us with collections of family pictures, documents, and older chapters in the family saga. That amount of material, especially with the pictures, is not always suitable for print publishing. We suggest using an e-book format. At LadybugPress, we have always encouraged people to use the latest technologies where it is appropriate and a well designed e-book can be the perfect solution for such a memoir.
  • Making it readable depends on a good index
    Most memoir writers are not professional writers and they don’t have to be. Writing a good memoir is as simple as writing a good index and then filling in the blanks. Do it by decades: the forties, fifties, sixties... Or by the development of the family: early years, school, marriage, children and grandchildren by name. If an organization or community involvement is central to the story you want to tell, in addition to or instead of an intimate family story, the indexing process is similar but is based on the development or continuity of that experience.
  • How do you know when you are finished
    Writing a memoir is often thought of as the culmination or final act of an active life, with death or an end to activity to follow… Nonsense! We have one woman working on her memoir at LadybugPress right now and she has added a new chapter just since beginning the project. She is also working with the man who is the center of that chapter in her life to begin his own family memoir. So, when is it finished? When you want to stop writing. And if your next generation picks up the story and turns the memoir into a tradition, there is no end.

    Turning it into a tangible reality: what matters in Commercial Publishing is not all that important here.

    Memoirs are a very personal kind of writing and a very personal kind of publishing. Things like market do not have any importance. The appearance and quality of the final project, and the experience itself are what count. Local printers and desktop printing may work if the project is small, but may not provide you with a finished product that is satisfying. There are a huge number of options for the final production of your memoir and you will want to look into everything from conventional publishing to spiral binding and e-books.

    I would recommend some professional help and advice for even the most creative and adventurous of memoir writers. Keep in mind that while anyone can write a memoir, no professional experience is required, producing the finished product does take the guidance of someone with experience and expertise. Look for places like LadybugBooks.com, where your participation in the project is encouraged and valued and the goal is to make it the experience of your lifetime.

  • Author's Bio: 

    In Line at the Lost and Found
    A Garden of Weedin', a collection of original poetry, art and essays
    Women on a Wire, vol.1 & 2, editor and contributor
    The Real Dirt on the American Dream: Home Ownership and Democracy under the pseudonym Adrianna Long
    Write What You Know

    Read her regularly:

    Writing and poetry workshops in Israel, California, Washington DC

    Other Writing:
    Plays (produced by Shoestring Radio Theater for NPR broadcast): A Stitch in Time and The Usual Suspects
    Plays (stage productions): A Stitch in Time and a musical, The Porters, with composer Lewis MacAllister

    CEO, NewVoices, Inc.
    Publisher, LadybugPress

    Fiction award (placed), National Association of Writers novel awards
    Founded LadybugPress in 1995 (first publication 1996)
    Keynote speaker, Peace conference Israel 1998