Planning on writing a memoir, but not sure how to go about it or even if you should? Don’t worry. You don’t have to be famous or infamous to write a memoir that engages an audience and shares a powerful truth about life. You simply need to be willing. The rest is all technique—and we can help with that.
Let’s start off by discussing the basics and then we’ll delve into actionable tips you can use to craft a memorable memoir.
Memoir Vs. Autobiography
So, which is it? A memoir or an autobiography?
While there’s a lot of debate between the two, I follow this simple definition:
A memoir usually revolves around one or maybe even a series of memories. It is rarely ever all-encompassing. It focuses on one seminal event that changes the course of that person’s life. It’s heavily thematic, meaning that there’s usually one subject. Often this is the moral, i.e. the lesson learned.
An autobiography, on the other hand, spans one’s entire life, starting at birth. Autobiographies usually juggle multiple themes. There’s not just one lesson learned, but many. Autobiographies are generally reserved for famous people, although anyone can write one and have it be a success.
The requirement for a strong autobiography is a life that’s out of the ordinary in some way, whereas a memoir can be about an ordinary existence told with profound insight.
Your Memoir is Not About You
Truly it isn’t. Instead, your memoir is about the lesson you’ve learned and can share with others.
People will get bored hearing about you. It’s the book equivalent to being on a date with someone who drones on and on about himself.
Instead, folks read your story to see human truths that they can use to make sense of their own lives. Spend a lot of time thinking about the key takeaways from your story.
In fact, before you set out to write your memoir, jot down what you’ve learned from this event. Just a few bullet points will do the job. Then put it away and don’t look at it until you’ve completed the first draft of your memoir. Now, look at what you’ve written and see if the lessons you’ve learned are clearly presented in your memoir.
If not, edit accordingly.
But don’t ram your lessons down the reader’s throat. Always err on the side of subtilty. Instead of a bullhorn, your takeaway should be a subtle whisper in the wind.
Choose a Specific Event
As we discussed earlier, memoirs aren’t a collection of stories that compose your entire life. Instead, a memoir targets one event.
What will that event be for you?
I know it can be overwhelming to choose just one event in your life.
Isolate the top five or six events that have occurred in your life so far. Which one has the great opportunity to tell a compelling story?
You may not know the answer to that until you start writing. I recommend writing two to three paragraphs about each of these events. Whichever one you find hardest to stop writing about is the winner.
Start from the End First
Itching to write, but not sure where to begin?
Some memoirists find it helpful to start from the end first. For example, you’re now working in your dream job (that’s the end). How did you get there? Or, you’ve finally adopted your child (the end), what started this journey?
Choose a Focus
What is the moral of the story you’ve chosen as your memoir? What was the lesson you learned from living this part of your life’s story? Perhaps you learned:
- Never compare yourself to others.
- Be kind whenever possible.
- Never take no for an answer.
- Intuition can save your life.
- You create your own destiny.
- There’s humor in the small things.
- It’s never too late to live the life you’ve always wanted.
- And so on.
What lesson jumps out at you when you think about a key event in your life? While you may lament something you didn’t do, the story is in what you did do and what you now know thanks to the passing of time.
Have a Target Audience
Not everyone will enjoy or be drawn to your memoir, and that’s okay. You’re not trying to reach every person in the world, just those who need to learn or be encouraged by your story.
Write for that target audience as if you’re speaking directly to them.
Be Brutally Honest
Vanity can kill your memoir. In a vain attempt to make yourself look better, you may be tempted to share things that never even happened.
You know, stuff like writing witty retorts that you wish you said at the time (but didn’t).
Don’t do that.
The beauty of your story is in its brutal and vulnerable honesty. It’s okay to be human. In fact, it’s required when writing a memoir. By avoiding or decorating the truth, you’re cheating the reader.
Plus, they probably know you’re lying anyway—and that’s when you’ll lose them.
Follow the Rules of Fiction
Start in the middle of the action, not from the beginning. Don’t waste time detailing boring demographics like your age or gender—that will come as you continue the story.
Employ the use of flashbacks. Here’s where you share necessary information with your reader. Your memoir doesn’t need to be a linear re-telling.
Show, don’t tell. Use descriptive language to build the world within your memoir. Don’t make conclusions yourself, set it up so that the reader can.
Create round characters. Your secondary characters should be realistic and not all good or all bad.
Read it aloud. Your prose should flow. Hearing the words helps you identify unnatural sentence structure.
Should You Name Names?
I recommend that you err on the side of caution when it comes to using real names in your memoir. In her post entitled Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?, Nomi Isak shares sage advice:
She suggests that before publishing a memoir, consult an attorney. I couldn’t agree more. Using real names can get you in a lot of hot water and become a legal nightmare. You could be slapped with a defamation lawsuit even if you’re telling the truth of what happened. Perhaps, just as bad, you could damage close relationships by your portrayal of them.
Here’s some great advice from Noel Diem at Law Street, also:
Whenever possible, use a pseudonym, and avoid sharing easily identifiable information about the “characters” within your memoir. This is the one time when it’s okay to fudge the truth.
Editing is Crucial
We’ve talked about killing your darlings before. But when it comes to killing elements of your own story, that’s so hard to do. You fiercely protect your own memories, as we all do, and the idea of cutting something out can be incredibly difficult.
Even though you have distance from the events in your memoir, it’s still a part of your experience. Most of us don’t have the objectivity needed to strip away parts of our story to find the true catalyst.
That’s where we come in. Because memoirs are so personal, you need a fresh, impartial pair of eyes to help you create a stronger narrative. Let’s set you up with a professional editor to develop your memoir.