5 Tips for Future Memoir Writers

It’s inevitable. I meet someone new – at the gym, the supermarket, on the sidelines at a soccer match – and they ask what I do. I tell them I’m a writer and they say:

“I’ve been thinking about writing a book.”

Then they launch into the details of their personal fall from grace or triumph over adversity. All memoir-worthy, indeed. The problem is getting the words down on paper. It’s not easy.

When friends – or students – ask how they might go about recording their own stories, I offer these tips:

  1. Ask Yourself: Memoir or Autobiography?

It’s important to know the difference between these two important types of nonfiction. At the most basic level, an autobiography tells the story of a person’s life, typically starting from birth. It includes dates, places, explains how you’re related to others in the book, and is told in chronological order. Memoirs, on the other hand, often focus on a specific time or major event in the writer’s life: battling back from injury, overcoming drug addiction, searching for and finding birth parents.

In his book Palimpsest, Gore Vidal wrote: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

  1. Search for the Right Stories.

The trick to writing a great memoir is to focus on only the best stories. You don’t have to – and you shouldn’t – try to tell about all your life’s most amazing experiences. Hone in on a few, perhaps linked by a common theme: childhood, survival, independence. I encourage students to start with the stories about their lives that they like to share at parties. Make a list of 20 or more life experiences, from your favorite birthday gift or your first kiss to the time you almost got away with something. Once the list is made, narrow it down. Identify the funniest or symbolic or harrowing memories. They’re your memories, so it’s virtually impossible to choose wrong.

When you pick a story with which to start, spend some time recalling details: Who else was there? What was I like at that time? What did I look like? How did I dress? Was I shy? Curious? Cocky? Then, start writing. The editing and polishing can come later.

  1. Be honest.

There is virtually no way you’ll be able to retell a story with 100 percent accuracy. Conversations will have been forgotten, details such as what you were wearing or what you were eating will be foggy. That’s OK. Tell your story as honestly as you can. Recreate dialogue to the best of your ability.

Be aware that your story may offend or hurt others. If you’re worried your family members or friends mentioned in your memoir will be upset, consider changing names to protect those people. You may want to show your story to these people ahead of time – not necessarily to get their approval, but rather to let them know what you’re writing. Don’t write as a way to get revenge. Be as fair and balanced as possible.

  1. Know your Audience.

A memoir written solely for family and friends can be structured differently than one you hope to have commercially published for worldwide distribution. Figure out exactly who you’re writing for.

If you’re aiming for a broad audience, you need to consider how to tell your story so that it’s both understandable and interesting to people you’ve never met. These readers won’t stick with the story because they know you from church or they went to school with you. You’re going to need to hook them and, as with any good book, hold their interest as your story progresses.

  1. Write Well.

Jaw-droppingly beautiful tales will have readers nodding off – if those stories aren’t well written. Plot out scenes and chapters. Use sensory detail. Make sure dialogue is realistic and helps move the story forward. Write, then edit. Rewrite, then edit again.

If you’re not sure what good writing should look like, read. Memoirs by Joan Didion, Mary Karr,  Frank McCourt, Elie Wiesel, Jeannette Walls and others will provide a great starting point. Read essay- and book-length memoirs. When you finish each work, ask yourself what made the writing stand out.

Every person has a story. Memoir writing is a great way to share those stories. Start writing.

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