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Thinking About Memoir

The first volume in AARP's "Arts of Living" series

Whether you hope to write a memoir or not, it’s a delight to watch Thomas identify the multiple traction points possible on the slippery subject of one’s existence. Memoir can consist of looking back at a single summer, she reflects. It can scrutinize an isolated but formative decade. It can weigh the span of an entire life.

To help would-be memoirists find their own jumping-off point — a “side door” that lets you find your way in, she calls it — Thomas sprinkles her account with inventive writing exercises, but spells out the goal of each one only after deftly completing it before our eyes. “Trust the work to find its own way,” Thomas concludes, and the shape of your memoir will appear. In a typically illuminating challenge, she exhorts the reader to “take any 10 years of your life and reduce them to two pages. Every sentence has to be three words long — not two, not four, but three words long. You discover there’s nowhere to hide in three-word sentences.”

You won’t be able to fit in everything, concedes the author, but “half of writing is deciding what to leave out. … Marriage, divorce, love, sex — yes, there’s all of that, but often what takes up precious space is sleeping on grass, or an ancient memory of blue Popsicle juice running down your sticky chin.”

"Thinking About Memoir" also counsels the habit of daily writing as a way to seed the clouds in the front and the back of your mind. Keep a notebook handy (call it a diary if you must, but never a journal!) and scribble in it everywhere — even if you are “only” in a coffee shop, and even if your subject is so seemingly mundane as how long it is taking to get your sandwich. The practice might just transport you back in time to that greasy spoon where you and your friends hung out, and to that moment trapped in amber when you noticed how thoroughly cracked the red vinyl seats were in the booths—and how exotic were the cook’s barked commands of “Adam and Eve on a raft — hold the raft!”

You may no longer recall what the raft was, but you recognize a side door when one opens.

Go through it.

Start writing your story.

“What is memoir? How do you write one? What if you can’t remember anything, or worse, what if you remember it all?”

So begins this insightful and reassuring meditation on crafting the story of one’s life. In "Thinking About Memoir," writing instructor and successful memoirist Abigail Thomas shares a lifetime of lessons about how to get started — and how to stay motivated — in recapturing your own uniquely personal history.