In the fifth instalment of our blog series of Creative Writing exercises, Creative Writing BA (Hons) Course Leader Dr Jack McGowan talks to us about writing Memoir and telling readers the story of your life. 

This session introduces Memoir: a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge. Memoir is a type of narrative that captures factual moments or events in the writer’s life. The novelist and poet George Meredith (1828-1909) believes that: “Memoirs are the backstairs of history”.

Memoirs give us ways to tell the small stories and personal insights that make up our lives. Memoir is different from an autobiography because it doesn't have to tell your whole life story. It can zoom in on fragments of time or memories. It will often focus on powerful or transformative moments that you think shaped who you are today.

While memoir should be factual, it's not a scene-by-scene piece of journalism. It’s a carefully constructed story that should entertain and move your reader.

The American writer William Zinsser says: “Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It's not; it’s a deliberate construction.”

The beginning of any piece of writing is really important, and a good opening paragraph of a memoir must:

  • Hook the reader
  • Create the right tone and atmosphere
  • Establish any theme or themes
  • Introduce the narrator and their personality through characterisation

Examples of Memoir

These examples of Memoir might help you get a glimpse of some of the different techniques authors use. Wild Swans: three daughters of China Jung Chang (1952-) opens with:

“At the age of 15 my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China. The year was 1924 and China was in chaos.”

Maya Angelou (1951-2014) begins her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:


“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – “ To whom it may concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California on route to stamps, Arkansas c/o of Mrs. Annie Henderson.”

We can contrast these approaches with the style taken by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) in his memoir about his idyllic Russian childhood and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that banished him to exile; Speak, Memory which begins:

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Writing Exercise

Now it's time for you to try and write part of your own memoir, this is a writing exercise that has been developed by my colleague, Ruth Stacey, a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Worcester. It will help you to practice your life writing skills:

  1. When planning your own memoir, start by thinking about what the theme, tone, atmosphere and ‘character of the narrator’ are in the memoir.
  2. It’s handy to think of yourself as a character in your own life story because memoirs still need to have the powerful techniques that work in a piece of fiction. This means that rather than just telling a life story to the reader, you're showing it to them (we discussed this in our ‘Show don’t Tell’ blog).
  3. You should think of the plot, the character arc, the journey of the main character, supporting characters, pace and tension, the climactic moment and resolution.
  4. Thinking about your memoir in this way will help you to create a piece of writing that will engage your reader.
  5. Remember your memoir must be based on your truthful life experience. Try to resist the temptation to embellish it too much with fictional details.
  6. Write the first sentence of your memoir then expand it into the first paragraph. Be open to surprises, or to the story changing direction. This is just a sign that your writing instincts are taking over.

Studying Creative Writing at Worcester is all about challenging your expectations and building the skills that will enable you to let your writing grow and develop. Sometimes the best writing will be a surprise to you as much as it is to your reader.

This is the fifth part in our Creative Writing Exercises blog series to help you improve your writing and to act as inspiration. Want to try the previous exercise? Learn how to write ‘Paratext’ and its importance to how readers will interpret your work.

Our Creative Writing BA (Hons) course offers chances to explore these ideas and many more in greater depth under the guidance of published authors.

All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies, or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.