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Five writing exercises to get you started with writing your memoir


For this special guest blog, historian and writer Dr Hester Vaisey has devised five writing exercises designed to give you the tools you need to write your memoir.

Have you ever thought about writing your memoir? I talk to a lot of people who like the idea of writing their life story, but for understandable reasons, many never quite get round to it.

In this article I hope to inspire you to get started with writing your memoir... and to keep going. A lot of people who are interested in writing their life stories doubt whether they have enough material to write a book. They almost always do, but they need some advice and some tools to unlock events from the past.

As a Cambridge-trained biographer who has helped dozens of people tell their stories, I will suggest some thought-provoking exercises to generate ideas, to trigger old memories and to sketch out a potential chapter outline.

Five exercises to get you writing your memoir

If you have always thought you might write your memoir one day, but life, work and family have meant that ‘one day’has never come, perhaps it is time to get started and make it happen. Find a pen and paper, and make a start on your memoir by completing the following five exercises:

1. Brainstorm

Before writing a memoir, a person needs to have an outline structure for the book. Take 5 minutes to brainstorm what this might look like. What are the events and adventures that have shaped your life? What would your chapter headings be? What are the key phases of your life that you would want to cover? 

2. Visual prompts

Get out your old photograph albums. If you had to pick just forty pictures to tell your life story, which would you choose? Some people prefer a more visual, picture-led memoir and find it easier to start with the photographs, and to use them as prompts to link the narrative together.

3. Select your desert island picks...

Imagine you have been invited to be a guest on Desert Island Discs. You may choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with you as you are castaway on a mythical desert island. What would your choices be, and why? This will be very revealing! 

4. Back to school

School is such a formative phase in any individual's life. Take a few minutes to brainstorm your memories of school. Do you remember your first day? Do you remember any incidents where you were particularly naughty, or wrongfully punished? Who were your friends? Which teachers do you remember, and why? What were your favourite subjects? What was the food like at school?

5. Consider your reader

It is important to think about your reader! A successful author has her reader in mind at all times. Visit your local bookshop and take a look at the biography section. Read the 'blurbs' (book descriptions) on the back covers. What makes these life stories sound appealing? Then have a think about what the 'blurb' of your life story might include. What are the highlights? Have a go at writing your blurb.

Extra support

For some people, these exercises are all it takes to kickstart their memoir-writing project. 

I offer a range of writing services to help people tell their life stories. When the client has finished their manuscript, for example, they sometimes get in touch with me asking for a fresh pair of eyes on their work. I offer a range of book editing services. I love working as a book doctor for clients, helping them to make their work the best it can be.

For others, completing these exercises makes them realise that they really want to record their life story, but they prefer to hire a ghostwriter. I can help with this too. When a client decides to engage me as a ghostwriter, they tell me their story over a series of three or four sessions, I record our conversations and then turn these recordings into a life story book, taking out any repetition and deviation, to make the memoir as compelling as possible. 


Working as a ghostwriter is a real privilege. I never tire of hearing a new story. And I get to meet people from all different walks of life. Each life story reminds me what different lived experiences we all have as we make our way in the world. As clients reflect back over their lives, I love hearing what they have made of it all –the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of the day, little beats the satisfaction of knowing that I have done a good job, when an email from a client pops into my inbox, telling me that they are chuffed to bits with their memoir.

Dr Hester Vaizey is a historian, biographer and ghostwriter. 

(image copyright Thomas Martinsen faceline)



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