What Is A Memoir?
A memoir is, quite literally, a memory – a record written from personal knowledge or experience. It’s a form that complies with that great piece of advice, “write about what you know!”
A memoir gives us the opportunity to explore major life events or a singular subject in as much detail as possible. Of course, by virtue of being shorter, a single memoir can stand on its own, or become part of a bigger collection such as an autobiography. Whether your memoir is about a time in your life that was brief yet significant, or depicts your entire life, having some memoir ideas to hand can be helpful for every memoir writer.
Like any other piece of creative writing, a memoir needs to succeed in maintaining the reader’s engagement throughout. Knowing which memory to pick is often the most pressing challenge.
These 50 prompts will get your creative juices flowing, whether you’re writing about an important life lesson, the most influential person in your life, or are detailing your family history.
50 Memoir Writing Prompts
Prompts To Prepare You
1. Keep a journal. Capture events so that they’re there for you in 20 years’ time. What’s more, journal keeping is a discipline that maintains a writing practice.
2. Find inspiration in photographs. A picture can help us recall past events. Take a look at your phone. What were you doing 5 years ago today? Use the ‘search’ facility to find something obscure – a cherry, a ski, an ice cream. What memories do the images evoke?
3. Interview people. Friends and family, especially the elderly, are not only full of memories but also often keen to share them. Make a cup of tea and, with their permission, turn on a discrete voice or video recorder while you chat about the past.
4. Take inspiration from the space around you. What keepsakes do you have around you right now? Are they connected in any way? What story do they tell about you?
5. Identify the story. An event may be of great interest but what stories are there to tell? What happened before and after the event? What impact did it have on you and others?
6. Recall a moment of conflict. Disagreements make for drama, and dramatic tension keeps a reader engaged.
7. Write about a moment or period of emotional change. Think of a time when you moved between happiness and sadness. Engaging drama is about emotional transition…
8. Write about transformation. Can you recall a moment when your fundamental beliefs and opinions about something were changed? Perhaps you suddenly started – or stopped – believing in God?
9. Identify who you’re writing for. What questions would they have about the memories you’re describing?
Prompts To Inspire You
Things That Matter To Us All
10. Life and/or death. There’s little else of such significance. Have you had a near-death experience? What is your experience of witnessing birth or death?
11. What is your experience of good and ill health? Have you ever been diagnosed with a significant condition? In what way did it change you, physically, mentally and emotionally? How were those around you affected by it?
12. When did you first (or last!) fall in love? Who, or what, was it with?
13. Comedy or tragedy? Drama exists in both. Can you write about a funny situation? What caused it? What impression did it leave on you or others? If you can bring yourself to write about tragedy, how did it affect you? Was the process of writing about it cathartic?
14. Imagine that you meet a younger version of yourself. What impression do you have of them and they of you? What lesson would you share with them? What might they tell you that you’ve lost sight of over the years?
15. Can you recall a moment when you overcame your fear of something? Perhaps you asked someone out for a drink, or spoke in front of an audience, or abseiled down a cliff…?
16. Were you ever betrayed? Or did you betray someone else? How did it feel? Did you regret it, or was it in some way the right thing to do? Did it have a lasting impact on your life?
17. What has been the most exciting moment of your life, your happiest memory? Why did it thrill you so much?
18. Who or what did you want to be when you were younger? How did that ambition drive you? Did you achieve your wishes? What do you feel now that you are older?
19. What books or films influenced you most when you were growing up? Why, and in what way?
20. Are you a subject matter expert in something? Do you collect stamps? Do you breed cats? Have you been into space? Have you been through the criminal justice system?
21. What do you wish you could have discovered or learned as you were growing up? Why would it have been important to you now?
22. Looking back at your childhood, what seems odd or unusual to you? In what ways did it contribute to who you are today? Think about your earliest memory.
23. Get someone else to describe you in three words. How does their view compare with your own impression of yourself? What do you keep private and what do you share? Why?
24. What makes you laugh and cry? What themes connect these things? What do they tell you about yourself?
25. At what moment in your life have you felt most loved, and most alone? When was that? Are they related in some way? How did those moments change you?
26. What cause or person would you die for? Does anything or anyone matter to you so much that you would die for it/them? Is death a price worth paying?
27. What keeps you awake at night? Why? Have you ever sought to overcome it? Can you share a recollection of when you first worried about it?
28. What are your insecurities? Do you worry about your looks, your confidence or money? Why? When did your insecurity first manifest itself? Have you ever tried to overcome it?
29. Write about a moment when you made a significant choice. Perhaps you proposed or were proposed to. In hindsight, was your response the right one? What choices would you like to face again, and why?
30. Your heroes. Have you ever met them? Did they live up to your expectations? How did you feel about them afterwards? In what way did their actions, behaviours and beliefs affect you?
31. When did reality not meet your expectations? Was university not what you wanted it to be? When was a blind date a bit of a letdown?
32. What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve ever received, or offered? Is advice a good thing?
33. Can you describe a moment when you didn’t do something which, with hindsight, you regret? Why does it still matter to you? How would your life have changed if you had done something differently?
34. Find the drama in an accident and bring it to life for your reader. What happened? Who was involved? What was the outcome? What changed as a result?
35. Which incident in your life hurt you more than any other? Why did it hurt so much? What effect has it had on the rest of your life?
36. Describe something memorable that you did for the very first time. What drove you to do it? How did you feel before, during and after doing it?
37. The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They **** you up, your mum and dad.” Write about family relationships; they’re full of drama.
38. How have your parents’ relationships with you and with one other affected your own personal relationships?
39. Write about your relationship with your siblings. What rivalries and friendships were there? If you were an only child, what are your reflections on being brought up alone?
40. Write about a friend. How did you meet them? What was the attraction? In what ways are they different from you?
41. Write about a stranger. How did you meet? Did you remain in touch? Why is it that you remember them?
42. Who from your own family’s history would you most like to meet? What would you ask them? What would you most like to tell or show them?
Day To Day
43. Which part of the world would you revisit? What makes you long to return? How does that place make you feel?
44. Write about moving in or out of somewhere you have lived. What surprised you? What went well, or not so well? What has been the legacy of that day?
45. What did you buy with your first-ever paycheque? Why? Do you still have it? What would you buy with an equivalent amount of money today?
Prompts To Improve Your Writing
46. Write about the sensual aspects of memory. What you saw is important, but what are the tastes, smells and sounds that you remember? Did you touch anything? Help your reader feel what you felt.
47. Show, don’t tell. You could write that someone was upset. Or you could describe how a tear gathered on the tip of their nose as they stared resolutely at the ground.
48. Don’t wait! Did you just create a memory? Capture it in a draft as soon as you can to encapsulate the present moment.
49. Just the facts…? The facts provide the structure around which the memoir hangs. But what engages a reader is the way in which the facts are presented and described. So, dig down to uncover or recall how you were changed by what happened.
50. Use metaphors and similes. Need to write about war? Perhaps you could pick out the tale of two neighbours on opposite sides of the conflict. Want to describe a complex emotion? Try comparing your own experience to something with which a reader may be familiar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Memoirs Have To Be 100% True?
If it’s a personal memory, artistic licence is acceptable – it’s your memoir. But if you’re writing about a shared memory – a football match, a funeral, a wedding – take care that any facts are verifiable. If the reader finds something to be untruthful, the authenticity of the entire piece may be undermined. But whether personal or private, great memoirs are enriched by the author’s own insights and reflections.
How Do I Begin A Memoir?
Wherever possible, try to find the most reliable and truthful source.
Like all good stories, a memoir should have a beginning, a middle and an end. A collection of memories – an autobiography – can benefit from some careful curation but, at its simplest, can follow events as they took place over time.
What Makes A Memoir Successful?
At least three things will engage your reader. First, the subject matter must be of interest. Find the common human themes in the story such as love, romance, revenge or conflict. Second, articulate how it felt to experience what was happening at the time. Emotions are a common language that allow people to connect. Third, write it as well as you possibly can. The better the standard of writing, the easier it will be for the reader to slip into your story.
Capture your memories. Start today! Take photos, keep a diary, talk with your friends and family and – importantly – listen!
Try using one memoir writing prompt, or combine them to find the inspiration you need to get started.
Polish your writing until it sparkles!
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