Behold! These memoir prompts have consistently ranked as the most viewed post on Word Bank Writing & Editing, and I wanted to bring feature them again for those who may have missed out the first time around. I’m currently booked with editing projects through the end of the year, so contact me now if you need to reserve a spot for 2016. Most importantly, know thyself. All good writers should follow that advice. Based on my creative nonfiction post, Confessions of a Motley Crue Fool, I hope it’s now apparent just how seriously I take my own suggestions.
The following questions function as memoir prompts that can serve many purposes, such as an idea for a last minute blog post. They will take you through a year’s worth of memoir writing if you do one a week. Or perhaps you would rather pick and choose the ones you find most appealing. At the very least, they can be used to fight writer’s block. Remember that writing about something is better than staring blankly and writing about nothing at all.
Make each one as long or as short as you see fit. However, limiting yourself to 300-500 words would be a great exercise in conciseness. Focus on appealing to all five senses. As always, aim to show rather than tell.
#1: Was there anything unusual or unique about your birth?
#2: What is your earliest memory?
#3: What is your first memory about your siblings, parents, pets, toys, or house?
#4: What is your happiest childhood memory? Your saddest?
#5: How have childhood favorites impacted you? (toys, cartoons, books, etc.)
#6: Were your parents good parents?
#7: What event in your childhood had the most impact on your life as an adult?
#8: What is your first memory about school?
#9: Was learning to read and write a struggle for you?
#10: Who was your favorite teacher?
#11: What was your favorite subject in school?
#12: Did you participate in any extra-curricular activities?
#13: What clique did you belong to?
#14: What do you wish you would have learned more about in school?
#15: What schoolmate had the most impact on your life? In what way?
#16: Who was your first best friend? How did they influence your life?
#17: What did you learn about yourself in high school?
#18: What was the first moment you felt truly grown up or independent?
#19: How old were you when you began to drive?
#20: Who gave you your first kiss?
#21: Who was your first love?
#22: What is your best memory as a teenager with your friends?
#23: What was the best party you went to when you were a teenager?
#24: What was your first job?
#25: How much was your first paycheck and what did you do with it?
#26: What moment in your life have you felt most loved?
#27: Which one of your parents are you most like?
#28: Was graduating from high school a big event?
#29: Has education played an important role in your life?
#30: What have you done that you never thought you would do?
#31: What was the greatest challenge of your life so far?
#32: What do you wish you had done differently in your life?
#33: Who do you wish you could see again?
#34: Who was the lost love of your life?
#35: What word would you most like people to associate with you?
#36: Who was the biggest influence (positive or negative) on your life?
#37: How were your belief systems formed? (religion, politics, family, etc.)
#38: What is great about your life right now?
#39: What could be better about your life?
#40: To what degree has technology shaped your life in the past 10 years?
#41: When is the last time you learned to do something new?
#42: Does your career make you happy?
#43: How is your family unique?
#44: Is your significant other your best friend?
#45: What do your pet peeves reveal about you?
#46: What do your tastes reveal about you? (food, music, clothes, books, etc.)
#47: How many life goals have you attained?
#48: What regrets do you have?
#49: What do you think the future holds for you?
#50: Do you spend more time planning for the future or living in the moment?
#51: What will your retirement be like?
#52: What will your obituary say about you?
Other prompts will come to you as you draft, so why not write them down in your writer’s notebook? You never know when it might come in handy.
What do you like and dislike about reading and/or writing memoirs? What memoir prompts would you add to the list?
Image Credit: Help by Kosta Kostov
As you know, Jeri, one of my blog’s main features is memoirs. Since starting on this track, I haven’t had any problem coming up with subject matter. Still, I know that there will be a downfall eventually so I have bookmarked your blog into my prompts folder. Thank you.
Glynis, you do write great biographical posts. I’m glad you enjoyed my prompts enough to bestow a bookmark on them.
Glynis, you do write great biographical posts. I’m glad you enjoyed my prompts enough to bestow a bookmark on them.
My father wrote a memoir a while back. He got a conventional publishing contract and sold more than a few copies. (In My Father’s Bakery by Marvin Korman). I read it several times during the process and over and over again I was struck by the importance of how & what one person remembers, the individuality of memory.
As his book was told in a series of stories about the family and the bakery, I had limited personal memory of only a few of the people and incidents, and those were the stories I liked the least. My own recollections never lined up with his and he painted his own father as a much nicer and more loving person than I knew him to be.
I loved the ones from the 1930s in the bakery, featuring characters who were real, but felt like characters in fiction.
Candy, rendering the truth in nonfiction brings up so many dilemmas. Come to think of it, that would make for a great topic for a blog post. Thanks for the idea. I just started writing some creative nonfiction about all of my national park trips, and there are indeed times I’m calling on multiple events and impressions to create a more powerful one.
It always goes back to Roshomon. No one sees the same event the same way and then memory alters the initial impressions.
I’m working on something right now that deals with remembering a series of events. The protagonist is trying to deal with her role, what she remembers, what she felt at the time, etc. Every now and then she questions her own recollections. I think her doubt gives credibility. People who are certain always strike me as being less reliable.
I guess I’m a skeptic.
Memory is complex and changeable; every family member will remember a story differently. I worry about my siblings but ( if I ever finish this!) I plan to say ” This is how I remember it, you may have a different version”… but who is to say which is more accurate? The constant exercise is to strive for the truth.
These prompts are great Jeri! I will definitely use them in the future. 🙂
Cheryl, it really is a great list. I don’t even remember where I first came across it, and have since added more questions over the years.
This is awesome Jeri. I am copying this and leaving it on my desk. It will greatly inhance my bucket of story ideas.
Susan, I can definitely see how this list might come in handy with all of your weekly podcasts. It’s always great to have such a list to job the memory when needed.
Wow – this is an awesome list, I had tons of ideas just reading through it! I have such a tough time coming up with post topics sometimes so this will come in handy, thanks! You’re the bestest! 🙂 Cute photo, too!
Beth, glad the prompts may inspire future blog posts and based upon what I’ve read of yours so far, they will be hilarious 🙂
My dad joined a writing group not too long ago. He has been working on his memoirs. He grew up during the Great Depression. It’ sinter eating to compare times now to how life was back then.
Jon, that’s beyond cool that your dad has joined a writing group and has been working on his memoirs. I hope you keep me up on the progress he makes.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful list of questions. I’ve spent years gathering genealogical family information and have decided it’s time to share it; but I wanted to add some stories to make it more interesting. This should get me started!
Ann, just imagine the family stories you could spin by using these prompts to guide you.
Great list. Do you know that I don’t remember my first kiss? I remember lots of kisses but can’t for the life of me recall the first one. Must not have made a big impression, huh?
Anyway, I’m impressed by how you’re keeping the blog going with quality content while doing NaNoWriMo and everything else too.
Jagoda, the key to my success here is re-posting material I’ve already written for something else 😉 Re-purposing content is great!
These are really good questions, Jeri. Sue Mitchell from An Untold Story also has many memoir writing prompts. You might want to check her out.
Lorraine, thanks for letting me know about Sue’s memoir prompts. I’ll be sure to take a look. Once can never have too many resources for idea generation…
The cool thing about Sue’s prompts is that they are emailed to you for three weeks, I think, and each is designed to take only 5 to 10 minutes or so to complete. I think they are still available. Wait…yes, I just checked; they are! It’s on the Memoir Starter Kit page. Here is the link, to save you some time: http://memoirstarterkit.com/
(Sorry – I know links are usually a no-no. You can delete this comment if you want.)
I love reading memoirs. Not sure I would write one, but the prompts would be a fun exercise.
TBM, everyone has a memoir just lurking beneath the surface. You could write a memoir about your 50-year project…
Jeri- What a great list of questions. I plan to do answer these questions and if nothing else leave them for my children. Now that my parents are gone, I only wished I knew the answers to half of those questions.
Arleen, your family would be able to cherish such a document. I hope you do give it a try.
I’m probably a little young for a meaningful memoir, but nonetheless a good thought provoking questions to stimulate the mind into words!
S.C., just the other day I was reading a discussion thread on LinkedIn where some lady was getting herself all in a fit because she swore a person had to be at least 40 to write a memoir. That is so not the case… I think it has more to do with how ready a person is to be able to process the event they want to write about.
I love this list of questions, Jeri – i am not writing memoirs (sigh – maybe some day i will :D), but all of them are worth answering – if not else, will explore a bit my own past.
However, you know what i didn’t see and i think it should be there? your dreams – maybe put in retrospect and context. E.g. what were you dreaming of when you were a child; then in high-school, then what about now?I bet your dreams are different, some realized, others not so much but still – such comparison of our own dreams can tell us much about how we have grown (or not). Food for thought 😉
Diana, that’s a great idea to add as a prompt. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a stripper or an astronaut 😉
hahaha, really? first time i hear someone having a childhood dream of becoming a stripper 😀 but the combination with astronaut – well, you had to make a tough choice! I bet you couldn’t pick one of them so you ended up a teacher / writer and editor LOL – i think i would love to read your memoirs – full of surprises, that’s what you are 😉
I’m a dork, I just realized I wasn’t subscribed to your blog, only your newsletter. But I am now! And did I tell you yet that I like your new blog theme and layout? Lookin’ good, Mrs. Kotter.
Anyhoo, this is a great list, and I must also recommend Abigail Thomas’s book “Thinking About Memoir.” Some really good prompts in there, too. Srsly. 🙂
Laura, so glad you’ve finally subscribed to my posts 😉 I just assumed you had me in an RSS reader… I’m headed over the Amazon now to add Thomas’s book to my TBR list.
I just re-read this list, and I still think it’s great. Sometimes the best memoir comes out of the most simple, everyday topics. I remember reading William Zinsser’s account of his favorite childhood toy and it was just perfection.
Laura, I agree. The little things in life often yield insightful and profound writing. Then again, that only makes sense for those of us who shy away from reading much science-fiction and fantasy.
I love this, what an excellent way to engage your mind and imagination. I’ve got twitchy typing fingers just looking at the list. I always miss great stuff when I don’t get around to your blog.
Debra, I do hope you’ll give some of the prompts a try. I’ve worked on them here and there, but keep telling myself if I would just do one a week I would finally be able to tackle them all in a year.
Jeri–I think I ended up at this post from Twitter. I always feel that Twitter posts are passing me by. Or else my memory is deceiving me which is why any memoir or pieces of memoir I write are suspect. I think it would be interesting to try to get my 2 sisters to also work on these prompts. We grew up in the same family 5 years apart between the oldest (moi) and the youngest with the same parents. I think our memories would be shockingly different. I’m going to add this post to my Pinterest board, a new method I’m trying to organize information I want to keep.
Suzanne, isn’t it strange how memory works? The role memory plays in writing creative nonfiction has intrigued me for years. Recently, I’ve revisited some pieces I wrote ages ago for college workshops. As I’m revising, I find my personal take on the time I spent working in national parks is much different than the younger version who wrote it 😉 It would be fascinating to see how your memoir would compare to that of your two sisters. Enjoy the prompts.
This is a great guideline Jeri. I am going to use this as a memoir map as I move forward with writing my life down.
Tim, prompts like this definitely come in handy. I started the list as a teacher for classroom use, but have kept adding to it ever since.
Jeri – this is so insightful! Even though I have touched on a lot of your prompts, there’s still so much more in your list 🙂 Thank you for sharing! BTW, my book “Running in Heels – A Memoir of Grit and Grace” launches next month – pre-orders are Feb. 1st! http://maryaperez.com/about-mary/
I didn’t start following you until some time after this post. Seeing that my first idea for my blog was to do memoirs, this post is a giant help. I copied some of these prompts in my OneNote. I’m glad I paid attention to the notice I got saying you ‘liked’ one of my posts. 🙂
Glynis, it’s nice to see you chime in on this post. I hope find the prompts helpful and inspiring. This continues to be my most viewed post on the blog 🙂
Gosh – these are great prompts. I have a hard enough time even writing a bio but perhaps I’ll give it a shot. I guess I would add “Which ex-husband do you wish you could shoot?” ; )
Jan, that is indeed a great prompt! Writing about past relationships always proves fruitful and cathartic.
What a great list of prompts Jeri! I had to work my way down a bit before I got to a question I’d actually be willing to answer – who gave me my first kiss. Ah, yeah that is a good one – in a canoe floating down a swampy waterway in the Louisiana Bayou and the hunk was my very own cousin. Ah well, anyway I’m a big fan of questions not only for writing but for personal growth exercises. Thanks for the useful tips and inspiration!
Marquita, kissing a cousin in a Southern setting definitely has potential as a memoir topic. I definitely agree how this type of writing functions great for personal growth exercises. I know I always feel like I am making the best and most progress in my life when I make the effort to write and reflect in my personal journal on a regular basis.
Ok, now why do I really want to write #52 first??? That must say something really strange about me:)
Jacquie, beginning at the end is often a great place for all types of writing to start. It’s a great way to put the path of writing into perspective fairly quickly.
This is a great list of prompts. I think they can be used beyond memoir writing – also as a starting point to use one’s own experience as a springboard to a fictional story or creating an experience for a character.
Donna, thanks for noting these memoir prompts can be pressed into multiple uses. Prompts are great in so many ways, and for me they function to get me started because getting started is often the hardest part of writing.
Memoirs take you on a journey into someone’s life. I enjoy this aspect and am working on something similar in the hope that it will reach completion.
Phoenicia, best of luck in working on your memoir. Hopefully a few of these prompts will give you additional idea to develop and try out in your narrative.
You are a prompt queen, Jeri! These are great prompts and for someone like myself, who insists her brain is a sieve and retains little to no memories of anything, they’ll be a lifeline for bringing those memories forth. And, yup, I’ve bookmarked this one 😉
Marie, I’m the same way when it comes to memories and will draw a blank at times when merely thinking or talking about past events. However, the act of writing about memories functions so well to unearth the connections we often leave buried.
Thanks for sharing these prompts Jeri. Excellent prompts to stir the memory and imagination. I’ve bookmarked, printed out for my workbook and shared around. 🙂
D.G., so glad you found the prompts bookmark worthy. Considering the huge numbers of view this post garners, I really need to do more like it.
We’ll be watching for more. 🙂
I love every single prompt! xx
Kim, yaaayyy! I’m glad that you love every single prompt. xoxo
I wrote a whole series of memoir posts from my childhood. Wish I had seen this post then. I generally think I don’t remember that much about my early years but when I read through these prompts I come up with things that I probably didn’t remember I remembered, if that makes any sense.
Ken, that makes complete sense. Writing is a great way to jog the memory. In my life, I’ve realized when I’m not writing in my journal for long periods of time, that is the first indicator I am purposely not dealing with issues that have cropped up. Like thoughts, one sentence literally connects to the next and oftentimes the results surprise ourselves.
Jeri, this is great, although for me a little too late in some areas (but not in others). I have often thought how I wished I had asked my parents more questions about their lives – Both were born in Holland – Dad in 1907 and Mom in 1909. They lived through two World Wars, the depression, a huge flood in Holland and moved to Canada in 1953 with 10 children. Looking at that now, they would have had an amazing amount of interesting stuff to pass on – but we never asked. Hope this motivates others to do just that – ask those questions you posted.
Lenie, what a telling admission we can all relate to, “but we never asked.” So many stories go untold. The amazing thing is how people tend to more often than not love to open up when asked to tell their stories. We can learn so much from each other’s personal narratives, but first they have to be told.
Jeri, I love reading memoirs. Especially one that is well written and a captivating true story. If you could have dinner with three people in the whole entire world, who would they be? You can ask them three questions and they have to answer. It can be anybody. There are no rules.
Crystal, you’ve reviewed some fantastic memoirs on your blog that I’ve added to my TBR list. As for your question (assuming they don’t have to be living people) I would have dinner with Henry David Thoreau, Anaïs Nin, and Alice Walker. The questions I would pose to all three would be the same: What does it mean to be alive? How do we find our authentic selves? Why do we tend to make life more difficult than it needs to be?
Fantastic list Jeri – can’t believe I missed this before. I’m personally not interested in writing about my own life, but will pass on to my memoir writer friends.
Kathy, thanks for passing the list on. I go back and forth on how much I am compelled to write about my own life. Even then, my fiction draws heavily from true life experience, so in a way maybe I should just commit and take the nonfiction plunge all the way as that is where I feel most in my element.
These are great! They would also be great conversation starters for a dinner party. I guess it’s kind of the same idea. 😉
Meredith, prompts really are great conversation starters whether the dialogue be with the self on the page or with others when striking up a conversation. The key is to get the words flowing.
I think you have covered a considerable range of eventual experiences to be triggered through these memoir prompts, dear Jeri… By the way, I believe there is a certain subtle, philosophical tone implicit in these questions, as they attempt to accomplish the so called `main aim´… That is: (to) know thyself. ☺️
Great post… Sending all my best wishes. Aquileana ??
Dear Aqui, agreed 🙂 Knowing thyself is a lifelong endeavor if we choose that path. It’s one to constantly refine and revisit as we grow and change in the people we are becoming. Here’s to the power of transformative thought.
Reading your questions made me aware of the amount of stories I have from my own life. I know it was just a fluff film, but this makes me think of the last line from Pretty Woman. Everybody’s got a story…What’s your story? I’ve never thought of writing a memoir, but I would love to write about a few of these, just for fun. Thank-you for the comprehensive list.
Good list of memoir prompts, Jeri. Read a lot of memoirs written by, maybe above all, global leaders. When that category of memoirs dwell to long on such issues the book frequently gets boring. Want to read about what happened when they were in charge of say, foreign policy in the United States. Not what happened to them at school. One of Hillary Clintons older books really bored me because she devoted too many pages to what happened to her when she grew up. Unless something really interesting happened when the person in question was young it’s really dull to read about their formative years. Much more interesting to read about, for instance, what happened when the world was at the brink of disaster that the writer was involved in solving.
Catarina, your take on what you look for in a memoir makes sense given your business background. It’s a fine line to walk in picking what anecdotes to include. A well-written and thought-out childhood anecdote can shed much light on a given person’s adult persona. Alan Cumming’s memoir went back and forth and time and the episodes of abuse he recalled from his father did indeed shed light on many of the life choices he ended up making.
These are great prompts. I saved this page for writing prompts.
Aside from my blog, I don’t write memoirs, but this list is something to have on hand for when I do get a brain fart. LOL! Thanks for sharing.
Denise, it would also be possible to answer these prompts from a given characters point of view. What would Brand or Sydney answer some of these? That would be interesting 😉
Fabulous prompts! Such a smart thing to have because obviously it would greatly expedite the writing of memoirs.
Beth, indeed. Even if much of the writing that resulted from the prompts didn’t make it into the memoir per se, it’s still abundantly useful for a writer to jog their memory as much as possible when deciding which bits and pieces of their life to write about.
You have some of the best instructional writing posts ever, Jeri! I’ve been trying to write my memoirs for years, and always end up stymied for various reasons – usually wanting to protect the names of the not-so-innocent, I guess. Many of us think our lives aren’t really that interesting or worth writing about, but I think that is exactly what makes them so compelling. Everyone can identify with the first kiss, or the “one that got away,” or one’s unique – ahem – family. I’m always drawn to memoirs of unusual childhoods, that may be different from mine in so many ways, but still the same, in so many other ways. And isn’t that what it’s all about?!
Krystyna, I wonder too how a memoir would go over for me when it comes to protecting the names of the not-so-innocent. Maybe I’m better off just fictionalizing all the crazy stuff that’s happened in my life 😉
wow, those questions are more detailed than a clinical interview! As I read them I remembered sitting with my grandmother one day and her asking me if I wanted to see her Memoir. I was shocked I never heard her use a word t like, Memoir” she spoke broken english and was rough Italian cookie.. I said, “sure”. She went tot the closet and brought in about 10 of my grandfather’s cigar boxes. The boxes were filled with torn pieces of paper all with words like “the beach”, the green house” on them. She didn’t have anything written down, she just knew the story that went with each strip of paper. And that’s what I thought about when I read these questions. 🙂
Pamela, thank you for sharing the anecdote of your grandmother’s “memoir” cigar boxes. It’s amazing how any things can be used as triggers for helping us tell our stories.
Jeri, the questions you came up with are great. I remember when I was four I put a Lego down a man’s butt at a meeting I was at with my Mother. I guess I thought it belonged there. Lol
Of all the bloggers out there, you have educated me the most. I just wish I had more time to write and do write another book. Bless you for sharing all of your knowledge (Jackie)
Excellent prompts Jeri to get the juices flowing. 🙂
I have a ton of prompts stockpiled. I just need to organize them so I can post them