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What are You Really Writing About?

What is Your Memoir Really About?

With memoir, it can take some digging to get to the heart of what we’re really writing about. There’s the story of what happened, and then there’s the meaning we’ve attached to it. In memoir, it’s not enough to tell us what happened—we need to know what that event meant to you.

To help with that clarity, here’s an exercise I did with a recent class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

“Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

The 5 Whys Exercise

The 5 Whys Exercise can help you uncover the what’s beneath the surface—or what I like to think of as the beating heart of your book.

The questions are designed to help you dig deep, identifying the root of what’s most important to you about this book.

A photo from my recent writing retreat in Estes Park.

How to do this exercise:

I recommend working through this exercise with pen/pencil and paper, since writing by hand accesses a different part of the brain than typing.

Choose a time when you won’t be interrupted. Then set a timer for 10 minutes and dive in. If you’re not sure what to say, keep your hand moving across the page and see what comes up. (This can be a good way of bypassing the inner critic and getting to what’s beneath the surface.)

Once you’ve completed this exercise, give yourself a bit of downtime/ space, since this exercise may take you into surprisingly deep emotional territory.

Ready? Let’s go!

  1. Why are you writing this book? (Now take that answer and apply it to the following question.)
  2. Why is that important?
    (Apply that answer to the next question.)
  3. Why is that important?  (Apply that answer to the next question.)
  4. And why is that important?
    (Apply that answer to the next why.)
  5. And why is that important?


Here’s what Rocky Mountain National Park looked like once the weather cleared and the fog lifted.

How did it go?

With any luck, this exercise revealed new clarity around your project.

If you’d like to share how the exercise went for you, please leave a comment below—I’d love to hear from you.

Have a wonderful week!



P.S. The next round of Memoir Mastery will be offered in January. To receive early bird notification (and your early bird discount), please join our community here. (If you’re already in our community, you’ll automatically be notified.)


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