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Everyone Has a Story to Tell

To write a memoir, cultivate the habit of listening to yourself.

If you do the exercises, you are going to have a larder full of material. If there is a common thread, follow it. If you return again and again to a specific time or place, set up a tent there. If you remain plagued by the question of who is going to find it interesting, please remember that most of us are curious about other people’s lives. My rule of thumb is that if you find something interesting, chances are good that it is interesting.

After all, we are full of contradiction and conflict; we have evolved out of many different selves. We have been thanked, we have been humiliated, we have gossiped and worried and gone to bed hungry for one thing or another. We have gone out on a limb, and we have stayed on the porch.

As I said earlier, writing memoir is one way to explore how you became the person you are. It’s the story of how you got here from there.

Believe me. It’s a good story.

21 More Ways to Start Writing

I give assignments in my writing classes because it’s hard to make something up out of the clear blue sky. Two pages is all I ask, and it doesn’t have to be a story. It doesn’t have to be an anything. I have learned we do better when we’re not trying too hard—there is nothing more deadening to creativity than the grim determination to write.

  1. Write two pages of apologies.
  2. Write two pages of instructions to the child you once were.
  3. Write two pages in which something is broken.
  4. Write two pages about an unwelcome surprise.
  5. Write two pages about a jinx.
  6. Write two pages in which something is too small.
  7. Write two pages about a proposal of marriage.
  8. Write two pages in which you do something wrong you do not regret.
  9. Write two pages about an untrainable animal.
  10. Write two pages that take place in the woods.
  11. Write two pages in which you were unmasked.
  12. Write two pages about scolding a child.
  13. Write two pages about sitting in someone’s lap.
  14. Write two pages on being too cold.
  15. Write two pages on a tantrum you regret.
  16. Write two pages on taking your time.
  17. Write two pages about a bad haircut.
  18. Write two pages in which someone kills something by accident.
  19. Write two pages that end “I could go on and on.”
  20. Write two pages in which a child comforts an adult.
  21. Write two pages on what you can’t remember. My father, Lewis Thomas, began his memoir, The Youngest Science, “I have always had a bad memory; as far back as I can remember. It’s not that I forget things outright; I forget where I put them. I need props.”


Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life and Safekeeping, teaches memoir-writing seminars nationwide. This article is adapted from Thinking About Memoir (AARP Books/Sterling, 2008).

For black-and-white reprints of this article call 866-888-3723.

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