Start Small: Writing Memoirs and Personal Essays

This will be a brief post since it’s about small approaches to writing difficult material. That’s exactly what I’m doing now. I’m writing a memoir about something very personal and often times uncomfortable. I’m giving myself an hour each morning to write a small section. Unlike my usual strategy of telling a story from beginning to end, I’m jumping into memory wherever I can. I’m gathering sections that I hope are complete as themselves, knowing that eventually I’ll have to weave them into a narrative. For the time being, though, I’m enjoying these little pieces of flash that are allowing me to dive more deeply into characters than I might if my main concern was the narrative line.

I always start with something small—a detail, an image, a character, a memory—and then I see where it might take me. The stakes are low and the subject less intimidating when I concentrate on the small rather than the large. A breakfast table, a rocking horse, a cat—why do they lodge in my memory? To interrogate is to discover. The concrete detail tricks us into saying things we never thought we’d say. The miniature takes us deeper into the heart of what we’ve come to the page to explore.

For those of you writing memoirs or personal essays: follow the small details. Let them show you the larger story.


  1. Kathleen English Cadmus on November 27, 2023 at 9:45 am

    Just want to say how grateful I am for these Monday morning posts from you.
    With love and gratitude,
    Kathy C.

    • Lee Martin on November 27, 2023 at 11:57 am

      Thank you so much, Kathy. Blessings on you and yours.

    • Joy Gaines-Friedler on November 28, 2023 at 7:20 am

      I’m with you Kathy – here & everywhere – knowing too that you have plenty of small details in which to allow your heart to explore. xoxo

  2. Joy Gaines-Friedler on November 28, 2023 at 7:22 am

    Thank you Lee – would love to read one of your flash pieces – as that is what I teach. I often have my adult students (who have been with me – some for 12 years) read excerpts from your books and postings from your blog. Joy

  3. Bridgett Jensen on November 30, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    Lee–this post is very helpful to me. Thank you so much. So sorry I missed you in Louisville this year!

    • Lee Martin on December 1, 2023 at 10:52 am

      Bridgett, I’m glad you found it helpful. I was SO sorry to miss you in Louisville. I was battling a nasty cold at the time. Take care–Lee

  4. Billy Kilgore on December 3, 2023 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Lee! Great advice. When I started creative writing I resisted the idea of starting with an image or detail. Not really sure why. It seemed like a waste of time but I’ve learned it’s the best starting place to trust.

    • Lee Martin on December 5, 2023 at 10:46 am

      Yep, the details will always take us where we’re meant to go.

  5. Rhonda Hamm on December 4, 2023 at 4:58 pm

    Loved this. Concise and very useful. Hope your Christmas is chock full of joy and peace and gratitude.

    • Lee Martin on December 5, 2023 at 10:45 am

      Thank you, Rhonda. Happy Holidays to you!

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