How To Write a Memoir

27 Aug 2019


Have you read a memoir lately? Chances are good that you have, or at the very least you’ve noticed a few making a splash on the best seller lists. Everyone from political figures to pop stars and even ordinary everyday people seem to be writing one these days. Maybe you’ve considered writing one yourself.

But what exactly is a memoir? Who would even read it anyway? And where would you start?

Those are all good questions to ask. In fact, answering those questions is the very first step to writing a memoir.

What Is a Memoir?

A memoir is a type of non-fiction book, and it distinguishes itself from an autobiography in a couple of ways. An autobiography is the story of someone’s entire life up to that point, while a memoir is a collection of stories about a particular time or particular journey in a person’s life. It is not the life in its entirety.

Memoirs are also less formal than many other types of non-fiction and are told as a first-person account. The “I” in a memoir is very big. The “I” is the heart of the story. Rather than highlighting facts and historical data, the way biographies do, the memoir revels in feelings and emotions — how the experiences affect the narrator.

Additionally, the stories collected in a memoir all follow a specific theme. Whether the theme is a difficult childhood, the path to enlightenment, or the birth of a business, the memoir should be able to tie everything together through a common theme.

Who Will Read It?

Before beginning to write a memoir, you should genuinely consider who your audience will be—who are you writing for?

  • Are you writing it just for yourself? Taking the time to write down our own memories of a particular time in our lives or a particular journey can be an extremely cathartic experience. While it is not a replacement for therapy, if that is needed, reliving our memories in our own words can help us to make sense of those things.
  • Are you writing it for your spouse, children, or other family members? Genealogical data, fabled family stories, treasured memories, and sage advice from our loved ones can be a gift that will last for generations.
  • Or are you writing it for mass consumption? In other words, are you wanting to have your book published? The reasons a stranger might want to read your book are vast, but most of those reasons can ultimately be divided into two categories: To feel connected to your story by reading about experiences they can personally identify with, or to have a better understanding of the human experience by reading about things they are completely unfamiliar with, as a way to walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while.

Where To Start?

Now that you know what a memoir is and answered the question of who will be reading yours, it’s time to begin the writing process. But where do you start?

Choose a Theme.

A good place is by choosing a theme. The theme answers the question what is the point? What is the overall story you are trying to tell?

Are you telling an immigrant story, like ‘Tis by Frank McCourt? This sequel to his first book, Angela’s Ashes, picks up at his arrival in New York at the age of 19, and chronicles his first few years in a new country. Is your theme addiction and recovery, like Mary Karr’s powerful memoir Lit? Or is it a journey of faith, such as the one recounted in beautiful detail by Tara Westover in her book Educated? Maybe you have an unlikely business story like Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso, or you have tales from a trip like Jack Kerouac. Did you tackle a big project like Julie and Julia, one woman’s (Julie Powell) attempt to cook through Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or go on a journey of self-discovery like Eat, Pray, Love author, Sara Gilbert? All of these are examples of themes successfully used in recent memoirs.

Gather your Stories.

No matter what your theme is, once you’ve named it, you should keep it in mind when selecting your stories. Use old photographs and other physical mementos to help trigger your memory, then gather the stories that follow the arc of your theme. What lesson do you want the reader to walk away with after reading your book?

Start with the before picture in mind. What did you, your life, the project look like at the beginning? Choose stories that show what it was like, how you thought, what you believed, and the events that shaped that belief system.

Then move through the process. What was the point where things (or you) started to change? What event triggered the change? Was there a crisis or epiphany moment? Did your thoughts or beliefs begin to transform? Select stories that show what you learned through the experience, which experiences taught you those lessons, and ones that convey your overall message.

End with the after picture in mind. What do you, your life, the project look like now? Have you or the project changed in some ways? What ways? Be specific.

You may also want to gather a few stories from other people. Do you have friends or family who could offer a different perspective or fill in some gaps? Family members can often be a valuable resource in remembering names, dates, and other facts, but they may also have stories about events that are relevant to yours, even if you were not personally present.

You may even want to interview other people who have had experiences similar to yours. If you are writing a stunt memoir about restoring an old bus, turning it into a tiny house on wheels, and living in it for a year, you could interview a few others who have done that too.

These outside stories add a layer of authenticity to your book and can be included in a number of different ways. They can be incorporated into your own narrative as knowledge or information you now possess, or you can choose to quote the third party in their own voice, separating it both visually and narratively from the main sections of the book. Both options add elements of interest and outside information that help round out your story.

Write an Outline.

The first step to writing an outline is deciding how you want to tell your story. Do you want to start at the beginning and move chronologically forward in time until you reach the conclusion? Do you want to start at the present time and move backward to the beginning? Do you want to begin somewhere in the middle with a significant event, move back to the beginning, then work your way forward? All of these are good choices, it just depends on the stories you have to tell and how you want the arc of your story to move.

All preliminary outlines should include:

1. An introduction: This is the hook, the thing that makes a reader want to read more.

2. Chapters: Your stories divided in a logical manner, flowing through the *narrative arc.

3. Conclusion: This includes a recap of your transition/movement through the theme to where you are now.

*What is a narrative arc? This term refers to a basic, generally satisfying (to the reader) way to tell a story. It is sometimes simply called a narrative, and contains the following elements, typically in this order:

  1. Narratives begin with characters and a setting. All good stories start by laying out who is who and where the action is taking place. This is sometimes called, especially in memoirs, a time of innocence. This the “before picture” we talked about earlier.
  2. The next necessary element is the crisis. This is when the character is called to change. It can happen through an event, an epiphany, or something else that happens to shatter the time of innocence and force the character to change in some way.
  3. Next is a series of events writers refer to as the Rising Action. This is the journey the narrator takes after the crisis. This is where you include the stories of remodeling the bus, starting the business, going to therapy or rehab, or cooking through the entire cookbook. This is the time when lessons are learned.
  4. Then comes the climax, or the moment of greatest tension in the book. Something significant happens and it calls on the narrator to use all of the lessons they have learned during the rising action to fix a major problem. This is when the business you’ve been building is on the verge of bankruptcy or in desperate need of venture capitalist funding, or when the bus you’ve worked on for 6 months breaks down on the side of the road leaving you stranded, or when the soufflé you’ve practiced so meticulously falls thirty minutes before your new boss shows up for dinner.
  5. Next is the falling action, where you show the reader how you fix the problem. This is when you not only remember the lessons you’ve learned, but you actually begin to apply them. We see you, problem by problem, sorting it all out. We see you changing the tires on the bus, taking a personal pay cut or figuring out how to reduce expenses so that the business stays afloat, assessing the soufflé, deciding to throw it out and start all over (or just order in).
  6. And finally, the resolution. This is where the narrator/main character is shown to have grown, matured, or changed in some way. We see the after picture.

Ready to Write.

Now that you understand the style and tone of a memoir, have decided on a theme, chosen your stories, interviewed others whose stories may be relevant to your book, gathered all of the pertinent data, considered your narrative arc and written an outline, it’s time to write your memoir.

Even at this stage of the process, you still have choices.

Write your memoir yourself.

If you choose this route, remember to:

  1. Be vulnerable and authentic. This is your story, even though someone else may remember some details differently, ultimately this is a collection of your memories.
  2. Be yourself. Write like yourself. Talk like yourself. Your memoir should sound like you.
  3. Be entertaining. Tell the stories you would want to read in a way you would want to read them. Use intrigue to increase interest. Do not give the whole story away right up front, let the reader figure things out as they read along.
  4. Bonus Writer’s Tip – Show don’t tell. A simple example of the difference between showing and telling is the following sentence, “A very tall man walked into the room and sat down.” This sentence tells the reader the man was tall and that he walked into the room. One way to show those things, rather than tell them, would be to write the sentence “The man had to duck underneath the doorway as he came into the room. Once inside, he looked around for the largest chair before taking a seat.”

Write your memoir with the help of an editor or proofreader.

Many people feel like they are the best-qualified person to write their own story, even if not a professionally trained writer. They also feel they could use a little outside help.

Even professionally trained writers use editors and proofreaders because even the best writers make simple mistakes. The work always benefits from an extra pair of eyes.

Your proofreader could be your spouse, a close friend, or a hired professional. Freelance editors and proofreaders often list their services on web-based freelance sites, but make sure you go through a reputable site and check their references.

Write it with the help of a Ghostwriter.

You may decide, after thinking through the sheer size and scope of the project, that it would be too time-consuming. Or maybe you feel like writing just is not your forte. In this case, your best option might be to hire a ghostwriter.

A ghostwriter will work closely with you at every stage of the process. They will make sure that all of the above steps are taken and that your book comes out sounding like you.

Hiring a ghostwriter can be a process in itself. You should take the time to research and interview your prospective ghostwriter well before entering into an agreement. Check their references, ask if they have completed similar projects in the past, and make sure they sign a non-disclosure agreement. But if everything checks out, and you feel like you’ve made a good match, hiring a ghostwriter is a great way to get your book out of your head and onto the paper.

Now that you have the knowledge, the options, and the tools, go write your book!

Dana Robinson 
Dana Robinson has been writing and editing professionally for 10 years, publishing her first article in 2007. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of a local online magazine and is a contributor to various Houston print publications. She honed her experience writing newsletters and managing social media for small businesses and non-profits before moving on to e-books, magazines, and non-fiction books for print. She also enjoys teaching creative writing workshops for children. Dana received her formal education at the University of Houston–Downtown, where she majored in professional writing, minored in creative writing, and was the recipient of the Upper Division Writing award for best essay. She completed internships with Writers In The Schools and The Bayou Review.

Related Content

  • 0 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *