How to Write a Memoir That People Care About

How-to-Write-a-Memoir-that-People-Care-About

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.

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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:

should-you-name-names

Image Courtesy of LA Editors and Writers Group

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:

great-advice

Image Courtesy of Law Street Media

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.

Why?

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.

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20 Comments

Victoria Alexandra Cabrini Luckie

And what do you do when you have been widely libelled by members of your immediate and wider family and one of the key purposes is to correct the narrative?

Reply
Natasa

You could write a memoir that gives your side of the story.

Reply
Victoria Alexandra Cabrini Luckie (née Quin-Harkin)

I sort of have, well at least 100,000 words of it, but I find editing impossible and am not very organised as a lot was written in tears in genuine flashbacks (I have PTSD and MS) and could really use an editor. I sent a bit to Dan but I can’t afford to pay for an edit yet. I care so much about it that I have put it in my will that if I die before it is done (when there will be a little insurance money) I want the draft sent to you guys to finish and get out. I have also found some papers that back up my side. I’m still deciding what to do about my name post divorce (I have been published as a journalist and photojournalist under all varieties of my name)

Reply
sybil

I think it helps to wait until your emotions are not so raw and, if you’re lucky, some of the guilty parties have passed away. It is much easier to write about dead people.

Reply
Charlotte Hyatt

All you can do is write a book from your side of the story. But be careful not to refer to theirs and be defensive because people will think there must be some truth to what they said.

Reply
Natasa

If you’re concerned about the consequences of using some recognizable details, there’s always a way to portray the importance of what happened through other details that are generally unknown. As for the other person who fudged bits badly, don’t focus on them!

Reply
Charlotte Hyatt

All families have some of the same dysfunction going on so it may not be as recognizable as you think. Just come from your viewpoint in your book. Three books about the same person/situation disagree on the facts but still sell.

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Corey Hansen

What if your memoir is a lifetime event? The only information my mother ever gave me about my father was a B&W picture of a guy on a stage named “George.” I was 6-7 years old. After my mother’s death 22 years ago I took possession of her personal papers and photo’s which I didn’t dig into seriously until 2 years ago when I turned 60. My mother was very secretive so it has taken me 2 years to put as much of the puzzle together to start drawing any real conclusions. I finally got the break I needed when my DNA results came and linked me to a 1st cousin on my father’s side, which I could deduce with the research I had done. He had passed, but was able to connect with his brother (my uncle) and learn his story. His name was Alfred-I never did find a “George.” There were a lot of twists and turns in between during all those years. I have written it all down, but want to do the story justice, which is why I am here.
Thanks for listening.

Reply
Gaynell

Dear Corey, you have lost me. I am so confused that your note is flying around my head.WAIT! I am not telling you to stop, but it seems like it would be very unique and interesting.It seems like you are excited and your thoughts are racing. Sit quietly in your writing and just thinking place.Calm your mind.Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Now make a basic outline. Simple, you can expand later. Now go write a bestseller. Good Luck! Gaynell

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Big Daddy

You just wrote the outline for your story, brother! Your 2-year odyssey to find the truth!

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Kendra

I am writing an adoptee memoir. The lessons learned,finding 5 full siblings after 50 years apart. The nightmare of my adult children and husband not accepting the beautiful reunion. My question is what if my adoptive and biological parents have died. Do I still need to change the names?

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Diana Navarro

Wow this is so timely (again). I am writing a memoir that took me so long to actually start. It’s good to have some extra validation I’m on the write track.

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Johnnie Barnes

I have almost finished my memoir but I am trying to find a way to end it. I read that one’s memoir was their life. I am an adoptee , I met my birth mother and birth father but my mother gave me a different story which I learned was untrue.

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Christi L Parker

I have been journaling about my husband’s suicide and all of the secrets he was keeping of affairs, drug use, stealing money from me while I was deathly ill and in the hospital and entertaining women and prostitutes in my house while I was hospitalized. He died a year and 9 months ago, but these unsolicited surprises of his secret life, keep showing up and taking back to the painful loss of finding him after he ended his life.

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Ed

great article… wish I had read it before starting mine! how do I go about finding a lawyer who can advise regarding naming names? it’s impossible to mask identities of relatives, friends, ex-wife, etc., in a memoir, unless one makes it a novel, n’est-ce pas?

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Dannie Davis

Enjoyed reading the comments and the replies. Wrote all my memories of growing up in a small hamlet off the Coast of Georgia during Jim Crow. How being surrounded by relatives protected us in our self sustained “Village”. the activities, people and institutions that shaped my values and out look on life, good and and bad. I recount stories of my paternal grandfather’s murder by a jealous possible paramour. The repercusions of that heinous act and supernatural things that happened after the murder. How the gentrification has caused the demise of the my Village and the sadness and anger I feel when visit the place where five generations of my family toiled and owned land. Need to outline topics.

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