Yes you can – here’s how

How do you, of all people, become a biographer? How do you overcome the inhibitions instilled by too many years trying to please your English teachers?

Those are the wrong questions. Here’s the only one that counts: Do you know what a jigsaw puzzle is?

Sure you do. It’s a picture made up of many individual pieces. Some of them are great chunks of background, some are odd little bits of faces and houses and children and animals and playthings and schools and workplaces. Keep that image in mind as you work on your memoir and you can indeed become a biographer.

The only essential difference between a jigsaw puzzle and your life story is that the end result of a jigsaw puzzle is a picture that must match the one on the box. But your story needn’t match anything, anywhere, any time. When you’re ready to assemble your pieces, you can form them into any shape of picture your heart desires.

If an orderly, chronologically correct story is what you consider best, you can fit your pieces together year by year. If you’re more of a free-form person, you can juggle them wildly and jig them together in any order that pleases you.

How do you “colour” each piece of your puzzle? Easily. Not effortlessly, mind you, because you have a big job ahead of you. But easily in the sense of writing as naturally as you speak, as informally as you would in an email to a dear friend or relative.

In the early stages of writing your manuscript, it’s critical not to feel overwhelmed by the totality of the project, or to obsess about “how good” the finished result might be. Your first job is to capture your memories and thoughts as quickly as they occur to you, before they can fly away like so many butterflies escaping a clumsy collector.

Record each of these memories as soon as it arrives using something you always carry with you – a small notebook, a digital device, a tape recorder. Then store it in a separate file – in a hard copy binder or a computer document. Leave it there, then go onto grabbing the puzzle pieces you think of next.

When you’ve compiled every single chunk, return to your earlier ones and either flesh them out in more polished prose then – or shuffle them into the chapter or section order you have in mind, and work on fleshing out each piece afterward. When all that is done, that’s when you start developing each puzzle piece into the first draft of your manuscript. The next and final step is polishing your memoir, as many times as necessary, until you’re satisfied that it’s complete.

One more thing: Type, print, and then put where you’ll see it as you work:

Terry’s Golden Rule of Memoir Writing:

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