Memoir Coach Karen Ray Teaches Us: How to Write Your Personal History

A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Inkandescent Women magazine — It’s a pleasure to introduce you to a wonderful fellow writer, Karen Ray, based in Las Cruces, NM. A memoir coach, and ghostwriter, Karen loves to travel, rusty objects, back roads, and telling the stories of “un-famous” people and places.

Karen’s company, Remembering the Time, specializes in helping people write their memoirs, wedding books, pet memory books, family cookbooks, ethical wills, and corporate histories.

She has graciously crafted a primer on how to write your own personal history. This powerful guide will help you access the stories of your life. Questions? Send her an email.

Scroll down, and get started! 

How to Write Your Personal History Using 5 Key Prompts: Who, What, Where, When, and Why

By Karen Ray, founder, Remembering the Time

In honor of Women’s History Month, what better way to celebrate than by sharing your own history? Most people have spent significant resources ensuring their financial legacy is in place. Few have a plan for passing along their values and memories, which is even more important. If you’ve been longing to tell your story but feel overwhelmed, here are a few tips and a fun project to inspire you. I like to call it Lifesaving 101.

Love of story is universal. It’s a language we all understand and the primary way we pass on what matters most. We crave for someone to hear us, to understand, to…remember. No one else on the planet has experienced your life events and the world around you in the same way. And here’s the interesting thing…we resonate with the stories of other human beings, find common ground, and identify with emotions and feelings. We are inspired by each other’s stories.

Our stories are a gift to ourselves and the future.

Everyone’s life story is precious and unique. Got memories? You’re qualified to tell a story! A memoir can be long or extremely short; like a 6-word memoir, it is simply a story about your personal experiences, a way to share your memories.

It doesn’t have to cover an entire lifetime but could focus on your childhood or memories of life on the farm or in the city. Other themes you might experiment with could be travel, adventures, or career. You get to decide, how empowering is that?

There are many reasons to create a personal history or memoir and celebrate life in a meaningful way.

You might start this creative journey to:

  • Preserve family memories and stories
  • Connect the generations
  • Set the story straight
  • Experience healing from something traumatic
  • Describe historical events as you witnessed them
  • Share what you’ve learned

You don’t have to be a “writer” to share your story in a way that touches others. You can even record them using your phone. Most people can “talk story” faster and easier than they can write it, make the process work for you. In my upcoming book Jump Start Your Memoir, I share 5 keys corresponding to the five W’s of journalism fame and an inspiring plan to bring them all together.

Using these WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, and WHY keys to map out your story will cut through the fluff, give you a quick start and set you on the road to success.

The mind map poster project is an easy tool that will help get your story out of your heart, head, and dusty boxes and into a form that enables you to reflect, grow, to share it if you choose. It can then stand on its own as a mini-memoir, or you can develop it further if you like.

This jump-start method doesn’t require stellar writing skills or special equipment; you can do it right where you’re at with simple materials on hand. Shop your house first, round up what inspires you, then fill any gaps from the local discount store. So…without further ado, here’s the materials list:


  • Posterboard
  • Colored markers
  • Pencils/pens
  • Old magazines
  • Sticky notes
  • 5-10 favorite photographs
  • Keepsakes or mementos
  • Music that inspires you
  • Optional: voice recorder

Project: Create a fun mind-map that will build your foundation, inspire you and help you focus on the five W’s of your story. By working through each key, you’ll gain confidence and be fully equipped to quickly start your own memoir or that of someone you love!

Music is evocative and energizing, setting the mood for your internal brain work, so put on your favorite sounds. Using a large poster board, attach 5-10 favorite photographs (or magazine clippings) that illustrate each of the 5 W’s. Spread them out, leaving room to write, then grab your favorite writing instruments and begin jotting down everything that comes to mind when you think about each of the five keys. As you work on your project, you’ll start to see associations as your thoughts accumulate.

Use all five of your senses to describe and call back the memories:

Who? There are 2 WHO’s to figure out:

  • Who will your story be about,  yourself or someone else?
  • Who will read it?

What? Explore challenges and triumphs that form the general theme of your story. What is your main experiential theme when you think about your life?

When? What time frame will you cover? A whole life review or a snapshot? Suggestion – start small; you can always expand.

Where? Where is your story’s geographic location? For example,  the scene of childhood memories, or perhaps your city or neighborhood as a young adult.

Why? What takeaway memories and lessons do you want to explore for yourself or leave with your reader? What memorable theme lies at the core of your life?

Bonus Prompt: What would happen if someone took your purse, your backpack, or one drawer in your house and tried to learn about you just from the contents? What story would your accumulated objects tell about you?

As fun as it is to read about the nuts and bolts of writing memoirs, it doesn’t get your story written. Take that inspired feeling and write or record for even a few minutes regularly. Words add up!

Don’t worry that it’s not perfect. I once had a friend advise me after listening to me agonize over a mistake I’d made on a quilt, “Give it the running horse test. Throw that quilt over the back of a running horse in your mind; if you can’t see the mistake as it gallops by you, nobody else will either, and it’s good enough. Accept the imperfections as part of the beauty.” Pretty good life lesson there!

Tip: Make this an interactive group project with a friend or family member; you’ll gain invaluable life skills in interviewing, observing, listening, and creative expression. Plus, you’ll enjoy encouraging each other in a life-affirming adventure.

Grab your favorite beverage and have fun jump-starting your personal history. Remember, just by completing this short project, and you’ll have accomplished something most people only talk about. Kudos to you!  I hope you share your creation with others to connect at a deeper level. It may inspire them to share their own story. If you haven’t started, don’t worry, the memoir police are locked in the closet; set a date on your calendar, and keep it. Make it a fun experience!

Bonus Tip:  Leave your project poster up and continue to add to it; your brain will be mulling over ideas for a few weeks. Ride the wave!

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