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Regardless of the life you’ve lived, you have a story to tell. But, the real trick is uncovering what that story actually is.
Maybe you love to curl up with a good memoir and get swept away by an exhilarating, relatable tale, and now you want to contribute to the genre. Or, maybe you think you’ve lived an interesting life and it’d make for a good memoir.
Whatever your reason—you’re here to learn what it takes to write a memoir.
Before we dive in it’s important to understand that a memoir isn’t just an autobiography. Those terms are often interchangeably used, but that’s incorrect.
Your memoir will include autobiographical elements, but it will not be a strict story of your life. If you’re confused, don’t worry, we’ll break this down further below.
Keep reading to learn:
What Is a Memoir?
Like we mentioned above a memoir isn’t just a plain old autobiography. People often mix up the terms or think that a memoir is just a fancy term for autobiography.
But, the two formats differ greatly.
A memoir will typically be based on a single life-changing event, or a series of events, the timespan that a memoir encompasses is often much shorter.
These events are then used to craft a thematic story that’s usually more morally leaning, as opposed to pure entertainment value. With a memoir the events that take place don’t even have to be extraordinary, they can be run-of-the-mill events that are told with a piercing insight and perspective.
With an autobiography the story that’s being told spans a person’s entire life. It highlights their accomplishments, their setbacks, and tells a story of uncommon success, or an extraordinary life. An autobiography will cover multiple themes and points in one’s life.
The good news is you don’t have to be famous to write a compelling memoir. Most autobiographies (that sell at least), are based on the lives of famous people, celebrities, and massively successful individuals.
A memoir is more about telling a story that’s relatable and speaks to universal human values and emotions—you don’t need to be famous to do that.
A memoir is more about telling a story that’s relatable and speaks to universal human values and emotions—you don’t need to be famous to do that!
The Different Genres of Memoir
Before you start writing it can be helpful to get a feel for some popular memoirs. Having a thorough understanding of the genre you want to write in can help you grasp what the reader expectations are and how you can meet them with your new memoir.
Almost every type of book will have a variety of sub-genres within the existing genre. For example, within the science fiction genre alone, you’ll have popular sub-genres like, post-apocalyptic and dystopian, space opera, military science fiction, and that’s just scratching the surface.
The memoir genre is no different. Take a look at some of the popular genres below from the Amazon memoir listings:
Inspirational and Transformational Memoir
One of the most popular genres of memoir is a story that showcases a period where the author had to overcome extreme adversity. These aren’t meant to shock the reader, but instead show triumph and offer the reader hope no matter what circumstances they’re facing.
For example, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert offers a compelling story about post-divorce triumph and self-understanding.
One very popular (yet highly controversial) example is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. This memoir offers a first-person account of what drug addiction and overcoming that addiction is really like.
Transformational memoirs offer reader’s a in-depth look at human nature and how hope can reign supreme.
Celebrity and Public Figure Memoir
Celebrity memoir will be a tough genre to write in, unless, you know, you’re a celebrity.
But, still, the genre is worth exploring as a lot of celebrity memoirs are pretty darn good.
The memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith is an incredibly beautifully written memoir that highlights what the music and art scene in New York City in the 70’s was like. It’s part period piece, part personal reflection. But, the lyrical quality of the book makes it very enjoyable.
Another recent example is Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. This book is an inspirational read through and through. It highlights her wit and humour while revealing the truth about her life, and all of our lives as a whole.
If you’re looking to write a memoir of uncommon success, setbacks, and a heavy dose of inspiration, then reading a few celebrity memoirs will help show you how it’s done.
Readers love to get transported back in time. We’re all nostalgic for certain times and periods of our lives. Instead of just reliving those moments through our own memories we can pick up a memoir to live vicariously through the childhood experiences of others.
One very popular nostalgia memoir is Sting-Ray Afternoons by Steve Rushin. This memoir offers a coming of age tale that transports reader’s back into what it was like to grow up in the 1970’s.
Beyond familiarizing yourself with the popular subgenres of the space you may also want to read up on the memoir category as a whole.
By reading memoirs that are held in high regard you’ll be able to gain insight into different ways you can tell your own story. Here are a few classic memoirs worth reading:
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Your Memoir Isn’t About You
It can be easy to think that your memoir is about you. After all, you’re using your own personal experiences to write the story. However, you have to think about the reasons that someone would pick up and read a memoir in the first place:
- To become inspired and hopeful through reading a story about overcoming a tragic setback.
- To lose themselves in a different time period and dip into nostalgia about another time in their lives.
- To discover truths about being human that they can use in their own lives moving forward.
There’s probably an endless supply of reasons why people read. But, when someone reads a memoir the one thing they don’t want is to hear a story where you brag about your accomplishments or show how you were always right in every situation.
One way to get around this is to spend some time thinking about the key takeaway you want readers to have before you even start writing your story.
- What did you learn from this event?
- What do you want readers to feel after reading your memoir?
- What kind of lessons do you want them to walk away with?
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s time to hop on your soapbox and start preaching.
But, instead, these lessons should be at the back of your mind as it will help to frame your scenes and the overall feel of your memoir.
What Makes a Great Memoir?
Like we mentioned above you don’t have to be famous to succeed with your memoir. Readers don’t read the memoir genre to hear tales of the rise to fame or financial success. Often, they read for another reason.
Memoirs are one of the grittiest and most honest forms of writing. Even if it’s painful. Even if it’s unbearably sad, memoir readers are pursuing truth and honesty.
A great memoir will enrich the lives of its readers. It will entertain. It will inspire by giving readers an honest look into the life of another person.
A great memoir will enrich the lives of its readers. It will entertain. It will inspire by giving readers an honest look into the life of another person.
Think of memoirs by authors like Cheryl Strayed, Mary Carr, or David Sedaris. These novels bring us fully into their world through rich description, captivating prose, and relatable characters. But ultimately it’s the honesty in the storytelling that comes through. It’s about bringing the common challenges we face every day to life and connecting these to larger scale themes.
What to Do Before You Write
So, you’re set on writing your memoir. Here are a few key things to think about before you start hammering away at your keyboard.
1. Who Is Your Audience?
The audience you’re writing for will determine what you’re actually writing. You might scoff at the idea of writing to market. But, think of it this way:
Writing is a relationship. In a way, you’re always writing for your readers. Unless, of course, you want to write a book that no one ever reads.
First, define who you’re writing for.
Do you want to write for a large group of readers? Or, are you just writing something for your family and friends?
2. What Kind of Memoir Are You Writing?
If you’re writing with the hopes of commercial success, then this will dictate your approach as well.
To write a commercial novel you’ll need to spend even more time with market research to determine if there’s actually a market for your memoir. This includes the things like the topic of the memoir and the themes you’re addressing.
To reach a large-scale audience you don’t have to write about an issue on a global scale, but you do have to relate the topics and dilemmas your characters are facing to a universal human problem or set of values.
3. Will You Take the Traditional or Self-Publishing Route?
When it comes to the actual writing and publishing of your memoir you’ll have a few different routes you can take.
For starters, you can self-publish your memoir. Today self-publishing has become mainstream and a totally viable option for authors who want to retain complete creative control over their work and how they choose to market it.
You’ll also have the option of pursuing traditional publishing. Just know the traditional approach could lead to a long string of rejections. However, a well-crafted book proposal will go a long way towards making this approach easier.
When writing your memoir you, of course, have the option to write it yourself. But, you can also consider hiring a ghostwriter to write your memoir for you too. If you’re not fully confident in your writing abilities and prefer to have a seasoned writer help you tell your story, then this can be an attractive route to take.
Top 10 Memoir Writing Tips
Take a Deep Dive
Going back through your own story takes a lot of courage, especially if you’re resisting and reliving tough moments in your life. But, this examination process will help to make for a more powerful memoir. Even with an incredible narrative, it’s these moments that come from deep reflection that’ll bring the emotional weight to your memoir.
You can do this yourself by doing a self-interview where you ask yourself questions about that time in your life and the reasons, motivations, desires, and emotions you were feeling at that time.
Beyond a personal interview with the main character (you), you may also need to do some tangible research to uncover all the details surrounding your story. This will be especially true if the events you’re writing about happened a long time ago and your memories surrounding the event have been colored by time.
The research process can include things like:
-Revisiting old locations that are central to your story
-Interviewing friends and family members who are part of your story
-Going through old newspaper clippings and articles to get a feel for the time period
Verifying any events that you’re writing about are true and actually took place
Chances are, the more you investigate the story and dive into your past, more and more memories will emerge. Take some time to jot down everything that happened and give yourself plenty of time and space for this phase. Once you have the raw materials you can then start crafting your story.
Don’t Rely on Your Subjective Experience
The last thing your readers want to read is a blow by blow breakdown of the events that happened. A memoir isn’t just an excuse for you to recap an entire month or year of your life. It’s a form of story.
Of course, you’ll want to include your subjective experience and insights. But, these won’t be the focal point of your story. Instead, build your story around the interesting events that took place in your life. Think about things that will draw readers into your story, like adversity, cause and effect situations, etc.
Start Your Memoir With Drama
If you don’t hook your readers right away, then they probably won’t continue reading. Starting your story with tons of backstory will only bore your readers. With your memoir, you’re not stuck to a chronological timeline.
You can start your story at the end, or even the middle, and then retrace your steps. The starting scene or the first few pages of your book are what’s going to help people decide whether to not to actually purchase your memoir. Start with an inciting incident that encapsulates the theme of your story, while being incredibly entertaining and compelling.
Define Your Memoir’s Theme
By focusing on your theme you’ll be able to connect with readers on a deep level, no matter what walk of life they come from.
Your theme is what will make an impression on your readers. It’s not about how cool, or unique, or hilarious you are. Sure, they might walk away liking you a bit more. But, if you want to write a memoir that your readers will form a deep bond with, then focus on global human emotions that we all share.
For example, we all share things like fear of loss, loneliness, grief, longing, the pursuit of love, and more. Go deep and find a global theme you can attach your memoir to and you’ll start to move and connect with your readers on a whole new level.
Pick a Focus
Your memoir won’t be about every single little thing that’s happened in your life up to this point. Instead, you’re just going to showcase a tiny little sliver of your life and magnify it.
To hammer the point again, you’re not writing an autobiography that chronologically catalogs your entire life. This doesn’t mean you’ll just be talking about a day or week in your life but instead bringing together a series of moments and experiences that revolve around a certain theme.
Write for Your Audience
To write a powerful story you need to show your readers what’s happening, not tell them. This is one of the oldest rules in writing, but it’s important to reinforce the point.
With memoir, when you tell your readers certain details, this can come across as judgmental or mean. However, when you describe a situation, instead of stating it plainly, you build a relationship with your readers and they empathise with you. Instead of feeling distant. Think about how each scene will impact the reader: what kind of emotions do you want them to feel? How do you want them to react?
Write It Like a Novel
Thinking of your memoir as a piece of fiction can greatly help the writing process, while making your story more engaging and fun to read.
Although it is a piece of non-fiction, you’ll have a lot of different fiction elements at play. We mentioned ‘show not tell’ above, and that little trick will greatly elevate the quality of your work. But there are other plot devices and tools you can use as well.
- POV: Since it’s memoir you’ll be writing first-person, that’s obvious. To create a captivating first-person perspective make sure you show not only the exterior events and changes but what’s going on in the inner world as well.
-Character creation: It can be helpful to think of the different people in your memoir as characters. Your readers need to feel something about each character, and they should have unique goals and drives. Plus, thinking of the “you” in your novel can help to create distance around yourself and write more honestly about that time in your life.
-Story structure: Without structure, your story might come across as boring or flat. There are a variety of classic story structures you can apply. Just make sure you’re not changing what actually happened just to fit into an existing plot.
-Emotional tension: Creating emotional tension will help keep your readers glued to the page. Each scene you write should be creating tension within your story. Will she make it out alive? I can’t believe that happened to her. That’s awful…I can’t believe they said that. Ramp up your memoir with emotional tension, just make sure to give your readers a payoff every now and then.
Create a Journey With Emotional Tension
Great writing invokes an emotional reaction in the reader. You want to take your readers on an emotional journey that has them crying, laughing, and pulling their hair out. To do this effectively you need to have a grasp on the emotional journey that you’re going to take your readers on.
We mentioned it briefly above, but here’s a way to make sure your memoir provides a satisfying emotional journey for your reader.
Tell the Whole Truth, Nothing but the Truth
The best way to write a memoir that’s powerful and impactful is, to tell the truth. As they say, the truth is often stranger than fiction. However, being a nice and genuine person you don’t want to hurt people who are close to you.
But, good writing bleeds.
You can’t simply fake what happened to you and end up with as powerful of a book. Another important thing in regards to truth is that your memoir should be written for the purpose of sharing your experience as it happened. It’s not to get revenge or whine about what happened to you. Regarding any experience in life, everyone’s version of the truth will be different. It’ll simply be the truth as seen and felt through you. Don’t hold back, embellish, or bend the truth for the sake of safety and comfort. Your memoir should ruffle some feathers.
Tell Your Story (Without Ruining People’s Lives)
In alignment with the point above you need to tell the truth about the people in your life, aka the characters in your story. But, you shouldn’t do it to the point where it damages them. Yes, you need to be honest with your interpretations of the people who happen to be in your memoir. But, you don’t need to be vicious, scolding, or downright mean.
Even if they gave you written permission to use them in your story you shouldn’t use this as carte blanche to throw them under the bus. No matter how true the story is, people probably don’t want the truth coming out if it’ll ruin their lives. As a writer you have the responsibility to weild your pen wisely. One way around this is to radically revamp the people and events in your story. Some writers recommend just changing the names of the characters. But, sometimes a simple name change won’t be enough as there will be other very recognisable characteristics.
Instead, you can take this even further by changing the location of the event, the gender of the person, or even change the actions while keeping the same kind of severity. Just make sure you’re staying true to your story and not making up, or adding elements that didn’t actually happen.
Memoir Writing Mistakes to Avoid
Memoir is a tricky genre to write. Naturally, it ends up tripping up a variety of writers.
While you’re busy taking your personal stories and experiences and crafting them into a memoir, make sure that you avoid the common pitfalls below.
1. Don’t Think of Your Memoir as Therapy
Your memoir isn’t your own personal journal. It’s not a way for you to work through any past issues. If you want to publish your work, then you need to treat it like an actual book. Writing through tough experiences in your life can be incredibly healing, but that’s not the sole purpose.
Instead of focusing on your own personal experience you’ll be drawing selectively from moments and events to craft a compelling story for your readers.
You’re sharing to relate to your readers, not to work through your own past.
2. Don’t Mix Up Memoir and Autobiography
Your memoir doesn’t have to be a chronological order of events. You don’t have to think of your story as a cause and effect relation of events. You can employ things like flashbacks and even flash-forwards that are going to support your story the best.
As a benefit, this means that you can avoid the boring moments and jump straight to the juicy details, moments, and experiences that bind your story together.
3. Don’t Make Yourself the Infallible Hero
When writing about yourself you might get into the habit of making yourself the hero. The character of you will be the focal point of the story, but this doesn’t mean that you’re perfect, or without your flaws.
Having honesty within the character of yourself will help your reader’s form a bond with your protagonist.
Show the mistakes you made. Don’t hide from situations where you made the wrong decision. Don’t gloss over the truth because you’re afraid it’ll make you look bad.
Further Reading, Watching, Learning
If you’re serious about writing your memoir and want to learn even more from some masters of the craft, then check out the following books:
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington
The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life by Marion Roach Smith
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir by Jane Taylor McDonnell
Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into Your Past by William Zinsser
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick
Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara
Finally, if you want to take things even further, check out this course on Udemy. It's extremely cheap, in-depth and has great content covering all aspects of writing a memoir.
By following the guidelines offered above and immersing yourself in the book recommendations highlighted throughout you’ll be well equipped to write a memoir that your reader’s can’t put down.
Have any questions about the memoir writing or publishing process? Please share in the comments below!
This is a great article! I have read quite a few about writing memoirs and you’ve really covered the most important information and the tips are applicable to my situation. Hopefully it will result in me crafting something great. Thank you.