Starting Your Memoir


While your family may have been poor, rich, loving, wacky, or otherwise exceptional or just plain average, you must bridge the gulf between your world and the reader’s with grounding detail. Every time you jog a reader’s own memory, your book becomes more important and, well, memorable, as it moves past the realm of personal memoir into a collective one. Let’s look at Ruth Reichl’s book, ‘Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table,’ for an opening that clearly establishes a sense of place and time:

“This is a true story. Imagine a New York City apartment at six in the morning. It is a modest apartment in Greenwich Village. Coffee is bubbling in an electric percolator. On the table is a basket of rye bread, and entire coffee cake, a few cheeses, a platter of cold cuts. My mother has been making breakfast – a major meal in our house, one where we sit down to fresh orange juice every morning, clink our glasses as if they held wine, and toast each other with ‘Cheerio. Have a nice day.’ Right now she is the only one awake, but she is getting impatient for the day to begin and she cranks WQXR up a little louder on the radio….”

Now I’m going to make a fast cut and imagine what would happen if we replace Reichl’s details with generalities, such as this:

“True story. I was asleep one morning and Mom made breakfast as usual, while waiting for us to get up.”

As you can see, Reichl’s details draw us into her book. From the modest Greenwich apartment, percolating coffee, and radio station WQXR, she sets a particular time and place, which happens to be mid-20th Century in lower Manhattan. We can visualize and smell it.

Now it’s your turn to take the first paragraph of your story and check it for establishing an era. Does each sentence lead the reader into a particular time and place using more than one sense? If not, then do this simple exercise: For just ten minutes, write about the location and year of your scene, using as many senses and concrete nouns as possible. Your readers will thank you.