Sharon Lippincott: Writing a Memoir Overview

Sharon Lippincott
Guest article by Sharon Lippincott

I’m a world-class procrastinator. I've been meaning for about a year to sit down and crank out an overview of my growing up years in Los Alamos as the basis for reorganizing the piles of draft material I’ve written for my Los Alamos Girlhood memoir. I've written stacks and piles of detail, scenes, accounts of events, and musings, but never a concise summary or whirlwind tour of the era. This afternoon I heard that little voice ask, “Why not at least start it NOW?” I’ve learned to listen to that voice.

A plan
Rather than limit the overview to just Los Alamos, I started five years earlier and covered Albuquerque in a way that I didn't do in The Albuquerque Years (my simple memoir of those years), along with a chaotic first-grade year that involved four different schools. I wrote clear through college and the early years of our marriage. I stopped with the birth of my first child, primarily because it was dinner time and I was hungry.

Time investment: about four hours
Word count: 4,935
Pages: 10

I like to keep track of these details. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. The task was not nearly as onerous as I thought, and it wasn't as hard as I imagined to keep the details at a minimum. I included a "Lessons learned" segment for each year or so, sticking to keyword summaries, and an assessment of how I felt about life and self that year. (Invisible. Different. Etc.)

Freewriting in chunks
Although it’s loosely chronological, this new draft jumps around like a robin hunting worms, looping out to include interest areas. It is freewriting, plain and simple. But it covers the primary chunks, and if I reorganize the 3,000 words that address my time in Los Alamos, I'll have a skeleton I can expand with the detailed stories I've already written. Reorganizing 3,000 words is so much easier than 60,000 or more!

My approach of banging out a 5,000-word draft in a single afternoon obviously would not work for everyone. You can certainly write this type of document in more than one sitting. My personality, preferences, and lifestyle support binge writing. Some people are unable to remain focused on anything for longer than an hour or so without a break. Others only dream of having four hours uninterrupted when they aren’t asleep. I mention this to underscore the point I pound on in my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: There is no right way to write. If you can only write for ten minutes at a time every few days, then cherish those ten minutes and don’t beat yourself up for not writing more.

Author, teacher, speaker, and writing coach Sharon Lippincott lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and writes on all aspects of life writing on her blog. She is co-founder of Life Writers Forum.

Photo courtesy Sharon Lippincott. 

Share your tips on how you organize your notes and manage your time writing your life story.


  1. Good ideas, Sharon. Recently I bought your book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, and find it helpful, wise, and inspirational. Thanks!


  2. Hey Linda, thanks for the kind words. I'm always delighted to hear that another person has bought the book. I know you are writing away on your project, so you'll have a head start on using ideas in there.