How to Write a Memoir

July 18, 2019

A will or testament is a legal document where you can express how you want your property and assets to be distributed after your death.

But what if you wish to distribute something even more valuable — your insights and observations drawn from your unique life experiences. If you have that desire burning inside you, then it’s time to sit down and write your memoirs.

What is a memoir?

Whereas an autobiography is your life story, a memoir is a story within the story. It’s not the whole pie, it’s a slice of the pie.

Author Gore Vidal in his own memoir, Palmsest, described the difference this way: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

How to Write a Memoir

A memoir is non-fiction, but it’s creative non-fiction. It’s an impression taken from life. For example, in Angela’s Ashes, author Frank McCourt focuses on how his mother struggled to hold their immigrant family together in the face of unrelenting poverty and family tragedy. It’s not a chronological unfolding of the facts, it’s a cathartic unveiling.

Before you start thinking that your personal story won’t measure up, remember that much of the world’s great literature is drawn from everyday life experiences and observations, such as going to school, getting a job, marrying, having children, and so on. So, don’t automatically discount what may seem like small or inconsequential events. Dig a little deeper, review the pivotal moments in your life, and you just may discover that you have a compelling story that needs to be told — and who better to tell that story than you!

Here are some writing tips to guide you on your memoir-writing journey:

How to start a memoir

Do you want your memoirs to serve as a guide and a resource for those who will follow you? What messages and advice would you like it to convey and to whom? What special experiences and insights would you like to share that impacted not only your life, but could impact theirs as well?

Even if you decide you’re writing your memoirs just for yourself — to get your thoughts down on paper to leave a record— the exercise can be extremely therapeutic.

Be selective

Again, you’re not retelling your entire life story, only the most important or transformative piece — that left the biggest imprint on your life. That doesn’t mean you have to exclude contextual details about your early, middle or later years. Just consider them part of the back story to help you accentuate the main course.

To get started, create an outline or diagram of your life, focusing on those life-changing highlights that truly made you who you are today.

Give your story a theme

What’s the theme or overarching message you’re trying to convey. You’re not just telling a bunch of stories. Rather, you’re telling specific stories and anecdotes that reinforce your message. Maybe over the course of your life, you overcame a broken family or a lack of education or an addiction. That’s a triumph-over-adversity story that never gets old.

Be honest

Tell the truth, warts and all. Readers relate to candor. If they can put themselves in your shoes, then they’ll keep reading. Try not to brag or preach and pretend you’ve got everything figured out. In the end, your story is not about you, but about what readers can gain from your story.

Show your story, don’t tell it

If you had a high school coach who struck fear in all his players, show that fear: “As Old Ironsides emerged from the dugout to replace the pitcher, you could hear the gravel crunch under his feet. Under his cap, his brows knitted together like an impenetrable line no one would dare cross, and if you did, protesting you still had one more out left in your fatigued left arm, he aimed a coffee-colored stream of fermented tobacco juice at the tops of your cleats and started to growl like a wounded grizzly.” That’s a bear of a coach!

Give your story arc

Arc is the course or narrative your life follows. To create interest, you must create movement — a rise (rags to riches) or a fall (riches to rags). Your story can’t be static. If it is, it will lack drama and tension and ultimately fail to hold the reader’s interest. Your memoir has to make clear the difference between who you are today and who you once were.

How to structure a memoir

Author Dean Koonz has published more than 105 novels, a number of novellas and collections of short stories, and has sold over 450 million copies of his work. Whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir, he has distilled successful writing into four principles:

1 — Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.

2 — Everything he (she) does to try to get out of it only makes the situation worse.

3 — His (her) situation appears hopeless.

4 — But in the end, despite all those setbacks, he (she) rises to the challenge and wins the day.

Borrow from a few masters

Lastly, before beginning your great writing experiment, why not read offerings of a few other memoirists. Here are three to get you started:

Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, about the author’s life in Paris.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, about the comedian and actor’s early days working at Disneyland, comedy clubs and why he quit comedy altogether at the height of his fame in 1981.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, about the author’s year of grief and mourning following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Whether you decide you’re writing for an audience of one or for the world, you have a great story to share.

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