How to write a memoir

Memoirs are like biographies, but they tend only to cover a slice of the author’s life, not his or her entire birth to near-to-death existence. When a narrative is about writing a memoir, you have to make choices about what particular moments in your life you want to explore. Just your childhood? Your youth? This summer you fell in love? The holidays you went to Italy? Memoir writers begin by making a list help them remember specific life turning points, a tricky decision or a painful regret. Before you start, flip through a photo album and select a few moments behind your favourite images. Maybe you’ll write about a key person who made an enormous impact on you (a relative, a coach, a teacher, a best friend) or a series of aims you set and worked that were hard to achieve. When you wanted to shoot for the stars, when you pulled an all-nighter to finish your homework assignment on time, when a friendship ends. This event is what happens to the principal character of ‘A Scene from the Suburbs’ written and directed by Spike Jonze. The young boy remembers THAT summer when everything changed.

I sometimes use this short film as a way to assess the narrative or as a tool to work on the past tenses and the memory.


  • Ask your student to bring an album of their parents when they were young teenagers and told them to find an anecdote that changed their fathers’ lives.
  • The following day, tell them to expose their father or mother’s memory of that particular moment in the picture that goes with it.
  •  Make them remember about a time you had to act braver than they felt. Where were they? Who were they with? No need to write anything yet, just let them talk.


• Announce that they are about to watch ‘A Scene from the Suburbs’ by Spike Jonze. You can find the link here Scenes from the Suburbs (duration 29 minutes approximately). They’ll have to write a timeline because the story goes back and forth and they’ll have to tell it in the way and in the order as it appears on the screen. The video is English and with no subtitles so depending on your learners’ level you may or may not give a little introduction about the plot.

A scene from the suburbs

The story follows a groups of high school kids living in a paranoid alternative society in the suburbs (you can relate it to the song ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead as a follow-up) where martial laws rule a stretch of repetitive houses and lawns. It imagines an America where towns are separated by checkpoints and heavingly armed guards. But the most important is how a strong friendship falls apart while the militant world is more and more present in the suburbs.

Now the moment has come to play the movie and remind them to takes notes for later. When the short-cut is finished, ask them to write the main character’s story as their own. Here there is an example of a student who did this task as an assessment of the narrative; this composition has been written by Martina Navarro, a 6th form student of mine.


That summer we spent some great time together. I just remember the moments I lived, but I’d like to remember the moments I haven’t been there. We were all friends: Winter, his girlfriend, two other guys and me. I had a lot of fun with all of them. I worked in a restaurant. However, things began to change. All started when Winter’s brother came back. He was rude, because he was part of the army. He wanted his brother to change, to become more mature. Winter thought his brother wasn’t a human due to his behaviour. He thought differently from the rest of us. He was sitting down around the fire alone next to us. He was thinking about his things: he thought he was caught in a dream when he decided to “wake up” from that dream, he told us he didn’t know what was going to happen to us. And moreover, the army detained us, they were asking for his name, and he didn’t want to tell them. I had to.That’s what happened. He was separating from the rest of the group. We didn’t see him anymore. He was staying at home, and he said he needed to be alone. He cut his hair like one of them. He was angry with me all the time and finally hit me. He wasn’t Winter anymore. He was one of them. He became one of the bad ones. Now, I just try to remember the good moments. A lot of flashbacks come instantly to my mind. He has changed, but those memories haven’t. I’ll always remember that summer as a good one although the war in the suburbs changed everything, even Winter.”

If you take a closer look at Martina’s composition, you’ll be able to see the importance she gives to memory, about the difference between past and present. But overall, she expresses the central character feelings, how he connects what is happening inside of him and the changes his best friend suffers. Two groups are relatively defined according to her: the group of friends (the care-free teenagers) and the soldiers. Moreover, she describes how the arrival of Winter’s brother influences his siblings’ behaviour and later conversion to ‘one of them’. It’s like the sweet child rebels himself against the establishment but he joins in. I’ve highlighted in bold the connectors and underlined the verb tenses used to show the richness of the composition. I think that with a good command of the punctuation a relatively simple use of the grammar, she had been able to show this feeling of a bittersweet memory, of this turning point, that summer when everything changed.


However, if you want to give an extra boost to your students’ writing, you should introduce some remembering and sensing collocations like:

• I had/got the impression

• I sensed some tension

• I had a feeling

• I should have trust my intuition

• My short-term/long-term memory is …

• she/he reminded me strongly of …

• I vaguely remember

• My mind went blank

• I distinctly remember

•  my memories fade as time passes

•  he was ridiculously over-sensitive



The fact that writing can be successful among your students is part of what motivates us to put care into our writing. And in cases where we are not able to get such immediate, direct, tangible feedback, we may need to be particularly careful in rereading and editing a text before hand it away to a reader. It’s necessary for the narrative never to lose track of the timeline and to make it understandable to the audience. The fact that the movie is recent and the characters involved are young should be an asset to motivate a class who is too used to writing directionless and audienceless tasks.


Benke, K. Leap Write in! Adventures in creative writings, Boston & London Roost Books.

Writing Extra: Cambridge CUP, 2006.

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