So you want to explore the fog of memory and write a memoir. Great!

Herefords in the meadow next to our back yard.

Herefords in the meadow next to our back yard.

Like the IRS, I’m here to help.

And so are many others. In fact, I am going to send you to them. Here is an eight-page booklet (.pdf) I wrote on the subject. What I say below will not duplicate the booklet and will give you enough to chew on for a good long while. You’ll be as content as the Hereford cattle in the field above. (The picture above was taken from the deck of our Shenandoah Valley home).

If you google “how to write a memoir,” you will find this essay by William Zinsser, published in The American Scholar, listed first. I highly recommend it. It’s a classic, like everything Zinsser writes.

Why write another booklet on memoir when Zinsser and many others have already written so well on this subject?

  • Because not all of them will find Zinsser or other literary giants. There are many people who would live better, fuller, lives if they spent time reflecting on their lives, even if they don’t write like Nabokov or Morrison. Jane Fonda referred to the life review process in her TED talk on the Third Act. She found her life purpose for her Third Act by writing her own memoir. Others can do the same, whether or not they publish the result.
  • Because I am interested in building a community of memoir readers and writers and serving them by offering them valuable ideas. Because it’s so much fun to see this community grow by a few people every day!
  • Because each of us finds the people we are meant to learn from and serve. Since memoir in the broadest sense — constructing meaning out of the events, thoughts and feelings of our lives — is something all of us are doing all the time, we will find our mentors and guides when the time is right. I have reviewed a number of memoir guides  (by Maureen Murdock, Natalie Goldberg, Linda Joy Myers, Nancy Miller, Judith Barrington, Ben Yagoda, and Marion Roach Smith). The first link above will connect to all my own review essays. If you click on the names of the authors listed between the parens, you will go directly to their websites. Explore the riches!
Finally, here’s an excellent article by Victoria Costello from the Huffington Post and a post from Linda Joy Myers about it that packs a lot into a short space. If you read all the books referred to in these posts, you will have passed Memoir 101 with flying colors! You will, of course, find some contradictory advice. Some people love writing prompts. Others dismiss them. Some focus on healing. Others cringe. What’s right for you? You decide.
If you have downloaded my “How to Write a Memoir” booklet, you will be getting a weekly picture in your email, like those Herefords above or other photos from my childhood, as a goad, spur, prompt for your own Magical Memoir Moments. I wish you many such moments.
So what ideas in any of the posts, websites, above, made you think? How are you becoming more conscious of memoir in your own life?

Shirley Showalter


  1. jzr on February 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Great post, Shirley … Especially the Zinsser essay. His words are inspiring and validate what I am doing.

  2. shirleyhs on February 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    So glad you found the post useful, Joan. Zinsser has written several books on writing and on memoir and writes beautifully about his own childhood.

    And do check out some of the other writers here, too. So much to learn! So many good teachers!

  3. Richard Gilbert on February 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Great overview, Shirley. And thanks for the reminder of Zinsser’s essay, a keeper!

    • shirleyhs on February 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      You probably know a lot more resources to add. I hope visitors here will come visit you and find more.

  4. Kathy Jordan on February 22, 2012 at 9:28 am

    So glad to see what you’re up to. It’s noble work, and I’m sure you are helping many. The memoir bug hasn’t hit me yet, but I know it’s a great source of joy and meaning for those choose that path.

    • shirleyhs on February 22, 2012 at 9:36 am

      Hi, Kathy, so good to see you in the comment section. I need to check out your latest news, too. It’s too easy to drop out of sight in social media. Welcome back. I’m off to check out your latest.

  5. Sarah Baughman on February 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks for this list, Shirley. I’m really intrigued right now in the difference between “essay collections” and “memoirs”– as in, what would lead one to write one instead of the other, and what stories lend themselves better to the different forms. By the way, you are nothing like the IRS.

    • shirleyhs on February 27, 2012 at 7:23 am

      Thanks for the chuckle, Sarah. About this time of year, no one should be comparing him or her self to the IRS!

      I tried out the idea of doing a collection of essays with my editor/publisher. But she strongly preferred a longer story with a narrative arc all its own. Moving from one to the other is a little like moving from short stories to novels for the fiction writer.

      Now watch that analogy come back to haunt me also. 🙂

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