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How to Write A Memoir Part One

I launched my career with a memoir, Migrations of the Heart, published when I was 33 years old. Carol Mann a Manhattan literary agent had read a draft of my first attempt at a novel. In a meeting in her Lower East Side office, she was encouraging, and then she asked me about my life. When I told her that I was visiting from Lagos, Nigeria where I lived with my Nigerian husband, her eyes brightened with interest. When I told her that I had come of age as a Black Power activist in college, was a feminist, a freelance journalist and now lived in the capital city of Africa ‘s most populous nation as a member of a large Yoruba family, she smiled in surprise. When I shared stories of my struggle to maintain my back-to-the-motherland idealism in a society that was deeply patriarchal, tribalistic, and that did not recognize me as returning kin, and that despite all that I felt more comfortable in my skin living there than I ever had in America she asked me if I had ever considered writing a book about all of that. My answer was no. A year later, as my marriage dissolved, and I contemplated and planned a return to the U.S. the answer became yes.

Migrations of the Heart was published in 1983 and over the next several years as women and people of color nudged their stories into the center of discourse, it became a widely read book on college campuses and with book-clubs. It remains in print today. Memoirs now rival novels in popularity, are studied, critiqued by scholars, make the best-seller list, and at their best are a form of literature and art. In between novels and anthologies, I followed Migrations of the Heart with two “communal memoirs” (my term), Saving Our Sons Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World where I wrote about raising my son against the backdrop of the urban violence of the 1990s and wove into that narrative the stories of other families; and Don’t Play in the Sun One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex, the story of my journey as a brown-skinned woman in a color-conscious world that included powerful stories of men and women of all shades who had experienced colorism.

The memoir is in my view, cousin to the novel. I advise memoirists to read novels to learn how to create a unique, resonant world, a place, and space that is irresistible and that becomes reflective, a mirror in which the reader sees themselves. I advise novelists to read memoirs to absorb that authentic, vulnerable, yearning voice of story that becomes testimony and witness. Voice makes memoir memorable. Who is telling their story? Does their voice force me to care?


A memoir is the story of a portion of your life, a period of transition, change, growth. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the story of a young girl growing up in the 1930’s deep South, as a victim of rape and racism, but it is mostly the story of how Maya was saved by the love of her grandmother and her love of literature, how she gained a spirit that would lead her to soar throughout her life.
The childhood years are formative, where we are shaped by the imprint of parents, family, community, and by what we are given and denied. Our childhoods are a repository of clues to our future, and where the seeds of our dreams are embedded in soil that whether rich or rocky, is our inheritance. In Migrations of the Heart, I wrote about coming-of-age, getting Black and proud, falling in love, becoming a mother, finding my writer’s voice against the backdrop of a decade that saw walls that had blocked Black progress come tumbling down. I lost my parents, a child, a marriage but made peace with my dual African and American identities and defined myself as a citizen of the world.
What portion of your life and experience is calling for you to examine and recreate it? I believe that we write memoirs not because we want to, but because we must. To find our way through our life and show the way to others. Memoir is art and literature, and it can be therapy. How did your childhood, the loss of a loved one, surviving trauma, achieving a goal, make you bolder? Memoir captures the essence of the experiences that you turned from obstacles into lessons. Your life is a story, and you are its hero.
Why would anyone care, you may wonder? A compelling story told in language that is beautiful and honest and true turns any story into a balm. Beautiful language fearlessly tells a story in all its colors and feelings. Beautiful writing does not shrink from memory or revelation because it has been defined as taboo or shameful. Beautiful writing rushes in toward those stories, armed with a mission.
Focus on that slice of your life that haunts and inspires you. That is the material of your memoir. Where to begin? I remember feeling overwhelmed by stories, anecdotes, memories, as I tried to decide how to begin my memoir. I finally chose to open by telling the reader about my parents. Parents, who had both died years earlier. Parents who I would search for and try to reconnect with in all my writing. “My father was the first man I ever loved.” That is the first sentence.
That sentence precisely captures the significance of my father in my life, as well as how my Nigerian husband was in many ways an echo of his character, and how important were the stories of Africa that my father raised me on, in shaping my destiny. That single sentence is the result of many hours of remembering how much I loved my father and what that meant for the memoir I was struggling to compose. I dove into the hard places of our often- difficult love as the gift of hindsight revealed the resilience of that love. I began my memoir with my father not because I loved him more, but because our love had involved more convulsions, more storms than my love of my mother. “My father was the first man I ever loved.” The sentence is a confession and an invitation, one that roots the loves of my womanhood to the love I felt as a child. That sentence is in some ways, an outline of the book.

Who from your childhood, impacted you this deeply? Can you capture in a sentence or paragraph what they gave you and what that gift meant?

Bright Idea

“Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

Marita Golden


Marita Golden is the author of 19 works of fiction and nonfiction. She is Co-founder and President Emerita of the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation. As a teacher of writing, she has served as a member of the faculties of the MFA Graduate Creative Writing Programs at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University and served as a Distinguished Visiting Writer in the MA Creative Writing Program at John Hopkins University, and at the University of the District of Columbia. She has taught writing workshops nationally and internationally to a variety of constituencies and is a writing coach, workshop presenter, and literary consultant.