Defining Moment: Where Will Your Memoir Begin?

by guest blogger Kathleen Pooler

In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding.” Natalie Goldberg,   Author, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, page 155.

closed door
closed door

We all have a stories inside of us that only we can tell; and throughout our lives we  have “defining moments”, pivotal experiences that shape who we are and transform our lives. At the time we may not realize the significance of these moments or experiences. Sometimes they resurface when we begin writing.

Deciding where your memoir will begin is often a challenging task for memoir writers since memoir represents a slice of your life told as a story as opposed to autobiography which tells a life story in chronological order.

Since we are advised to hook our reader within the first paragraph, it makes sense that we review the defining moments in our lives where life as we knew it changed.

Screen writer, Art Holcomb struck a chord with me in this brilliant guest post on Larry Brooks’ Storyfix blog, “The Personal Story Arc”. “As writers, we must use every bit of whatever emotion is inside to tell our stories because, although we are special, our experiences are not unique. It all comes from the defining moment.”

This is exactly what happened to me in a Women Writers & Artist Matrix Workshop with authors and writing coaches Pat Carr and Alice Orr in 2011

Pat is the author of several books, the most recent one being, One Page At A Time, a nonfiction book on the writing life. Although she focuses on fiction, her writing tips apply to nonfiction/memoir writing: Write the right story, using the right point of view and always write from your personal real-life experiences, i.e. “Don’t pretend to be Catholic or Jewish or poverty-stricken, if you’re not.” During her “write a childhood memory involving an epiphany” prompt, I wrote a vignette about the day my paternal grandmother nursed an injured wren back to health by squeezing drops of water from a cotton ball into its opened beak. For the first time, I realized that her modeling of caretaking may have planted the seeds in me to become a nurse. My epiphany occurred fifty-eight years later as I wrote the story.

Alice is a former editor, agent, memoir writing coach and author of several books, the most recent being, No More Rejection: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells. She led us through an exercise to define our story opening in her “Mazes, Mentors and Miracles” memoir workshop, asking questions such as: “What exactly is the nature of the moment in your life when the story opens?” She urged us to “find the pieces of your story and assemble them into your own chapters from the heart of your experience. Write them right and they’ll deserve to be heard.”

Pat, Alice and the many wonderful women surrounding me led me to the “defining moment” in my memoir, the place where I will step into my own story. It’s time to “take off the protective covering” as Alice advised and write from the “heart of my experience.”

Once I defined the moment the reader would step into my story, the story unfolded without much effort on my part. I had already written piles of vignettes that needed to be arranged and rearranged so I could shape them into a story with a beginning, middle and end- a narrative arc.

Memoir is more than a recollection of memories in chronological order. In order for it to be a story, it needs a hook, a theme, a plot with conflict and tension, scenic details, character development, point of view and reflection.

I asked myself the following questions before I decided on where my reader would step into my story:

What is my purpose for writing?

What is my main message/theme?

What scene or scenes best portray my theme?

How will I hook my reader in the first sentence?

How will I create enough interest on the first page to make my reader want to keep reading?

Where will the reader enter into my story?

Once the reader enters, what will make him/her want to stay?

After much trial and error, I decided to start my memoir at the lowest and most dramatic point in my life- a scene where my preteen children and I escaped in the middle of the day from my second husband due to a threat of physical abuse… still a work-in-progress but now in the revision stage.

pathway to lightIdentifying the defining moment-where your reader steps into your story- sets the process of telling the story only you can tell in motion.

How about you? Have you discovered the defining moments in your life?  If you are a writer, have you found the place where you will step into your story?


Kathleen Pooler

Kathleen Pooler is a writer and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner who is working on a memoir about how the power of hope through her faith in God has helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog: and can be found on Twitter @kathypooler and on LinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads and Facebook: Kathleen Pooler

One of her stories “ The Stone on the Shore” is published in the anthology:The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment” by Pat LaPointe.

20 thoughts on “Defining Moment: Where Will Your Memoir Begin?

  1. Kathy, I’ve found that as one develops and adds to the defining moment, the story takes on its own life and the heart and emphasis can change. How to wrap up and pull all the threads together–the major thread and a few others–is quite a challenge. Happy to be in your company in this adventure.

    1. Marlena, I agree that sometimes the emphasis in a story can change. It’s important to keep open and flexible. Kathy has given us some wonderful insights that can be helpful at every turn.

    2. Thanks for stopping by Marlena. I have experienced the exact points you are making about the story taking on a life of its own. Pulling it all together and wrapping it up is a challenge. But, I found, once I identified where to step into my story, it all seemed to fall into place. Also, for me,it took a lot of writing, arranging and rearranging, before my theme became clear. I’m happy to be sharing this adventure with you, too. Best wishes!

  2. Kathy, I am so impressed by the way you are going about the memoir writing process. You know so much more than I did at the beginning of the process. But your questions are great ones for any stage. Thanks for another enlightening glimpse into your memoir writing process.

    1. Hi Shirley, I appreciate your kind words. I feel I have learned so much from so many, including you and I am just paying it all forward. It has been a fascinating journey, a constant unfolding of challenges and triumphs. Being part of such a vibrant, supportive community has made it all worthwhile. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. Hi Kathy, once again you’ve hit the nail square on. That opening scene is so important. Mine has mutated and evolved over time more often than I can even count. And I’m writing about only a two year period of my life! I can’t imagine choosing an opening scene for a life’s memoir. So eager to read yours when it comes out.

  4. Thanks, Janet. Isn’t is amazing how even the tiniest slice of life requires a monumental effort to recapture? Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks so much for stopping by .

    And thanks again for this opportunity, Lorenzo as well as for your kind words of support. It’s been a great week here and over at Memoir Writer’s Journey with your guest post.

  5. You have such great perspective on memoir writing, Kathy; thanks for sharing this wonderful insight about ‘defining moments.’ I followed the ‘surface structure’ vs. ‘deep structure’ approach to writing my memoir – because I knew my loss of identity was a direct outcome of my expatriation, writing my story was a way of exploring the subconscious beliefs about ‘not belonging.’ And you’re right, what I discovered was a series of ‘defining moments’ that led to the feeling of being adrift.

    1. Belinda, I always appreciate your thought-provoking perspective on writing. I think we all find our own ways through the maze of self-discovery as we begin to write. It is fascinating to me how the story that needs to be told manages to unfold as it is meant to. Thanks, as always, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s