Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Memoir
Writing a memoir can be the most personal and intimate experience of your life. It is safe to say that it's like therapy. Every story, if told in the right way, is worth being told. There's a lesson in it that's worth sharing. And a pleasure waiting to be found in the story's conclusion.
Everyone has a story in them. These stories have recently found an outlet now that self-publishing is a prevalent enterprise in a world ruled by the internet. In the past, writing memoir stories was affiliated with celebrities and hyper-successful people. Today, even the life experiences of an average person can make for a great read if they fulfill the basic criteria for memoir writing in general.
So what are these criteria that can make a memoir a source of pleasure, learning, and inspiration for its readers? We'll list all of those elements one-by-one to provide assistance in understanding everything that you need to know to write a good memoir.
What is a Memoir?
A memoir is a written account of someone's life that is based on the author's memories of the captured events. It is a form of non-fiction prose and is intended to be the truth, at least from the author's point of view.
A memoir can be written by a loved one, or the person themselves. It's a recollection of memories and feelings of all the events of the subject's life that connect together to a common point of focus.
Memoir writers are called memoirists. They pick one aspect of the subject's character and report on all the events that helped develop the subject as a better person in that particular aspect. A memoir is like a story in its basic layout, but there's a catch. Reality is rarely laid out as an interesting story if it's told in a linear and straightforward fashion. All the successful memoir examples that we have in front of us are just real stories told in a way that sounds entertaining, pleasurable, and rewarding for the reader.
Memoir vs. Autobiography
Many people blur the lines between memoir and autobiography and use the terms interchangeably. It is important to know the distinction between the two before we begin to learn how to write a memoir and not an autobiography.
The difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that an autobiography is the subject's entire life story from the cradle to the grave. Memoirs focus on a certain aspect of the subject's life.
People in real life aren't one-dimensional creatures. They have various aspects to their characters that keep on changing and evolving throughout their lifetimes until they reach an ultimate conclusion of how they think life should be spent and adopt it as their primary attribute.
That ultimate conclusion is the moral of their memoir and its central theme.
In contrast, an autobiography captures the entire life of the subject and reflects on the big picture of their life to better understand the kind of person they are/were. Autobiographies, generally speaking, are more befitting for celebrities - people who are celebrated by the mass public for their contributions to society in their respective fields.
Readers will hardly find any interest in reading the complete life story of a person they haven't heard of. But a memoir of a common person can still be interesting and valuable for the average reader.
How to Write a Memoir
Before we get into the advanced tips and tricks that make a memoir a great writing success, let's discuss the basics of how to write a memoir first. Here's a simple step-by-step process that any writer can easily follow to begin their memoir writing journey.
Pick a Theme
Now that we know that a memoir is different than an autobiography because it focuses on one aspect of the subject's life, it's time to settle on that one big idea around which your memoir is going to revolve.
As Shakespeare suggests that everyone is an actor acting out their roles in the stage of this world, ask yourself what different roles have you played in your life so far? Make a list of all those roles, for example, student, father or mother, friend, lover, teacher, son or daughter, etc. Start from the basics and make your way up to the more specialized roles.
You probably already have an idea for your memoir, but this exercise will help you distinguish between the different roles. Later when you sit down to write, you'll realize when you're wasting words describing something that does not help progress your memoir forward because, for example, your details about how successful you were in middle school academically might not have any impact on your story as a father unless it's directly linked to it. Compare all the roles and pick a central idea for the memoir. All your short stories and anecdotes are going to ultimately help develop the main idea until a satisfying conclusion is reached.
Sketch a Rough Outline
Using the roles that you've defined above, sketch a rough outline of your book. The outline of a book clearly defines the following things:
- Number of chapters and a total book length
- The major topic of each chapter
- A brief description of each chapter and how it helps the story progress forward.
This outline is intended to be the guidelines for your book, but it's highly likely that you're going to follow it religiously. You will be tempted to bend some lines, alter a chapter, or rearrange the sequence when you start writing the book formally.
Speaking of rearranging the sequence of chapters, good memoirs aren't written in chronological order. They start in the middle of your life with a load of tension and then maintain that level of tension until a dot connects it to the big picture pushing the story forward.
More than the chronology of the memoirs, the connection between stories and the way they contribute to progressing the story forward is important. The ultimate goal of each anecdote, memory, and character introduction is to push you a little further towards the conclusion of your book. And the conclusion is what the author decides when they pick the aspect of their life that they're going to be writing about.
There has to be an overarching message or idea in all the stories, and the conclusion of the book is the complete maturity of that message. Keep it in mind while writing chapter descriptions that each chapter should fuel that overarching message and push the story towards its maturity.
Research is a significant part of writing a book. The nature of research may vary depending upon the genre and category of the book. In the case of a memoir, research can mean a long trip down memory lane.
Photographs, videotapes, polaroids, newspaper cutouts, notes, diaries, anything and everything that you own that is connected to the memory you're writing about can prove to be highly useful.
Even if you remember the event clear as day, taking a look at that picture, eating that flavor of ice cream again, wearing that perfume, listening to that song once again, all of it will refresh your memory. You will go back to the time of the memory and in a zone of sentiments that will help release your feelings and thoughts more effectively.
Other than your personal stuff, you also need to fact-check and collect data on anything that you aren't sure of. Memoirs are personal accounts of history. And human memory is not very reliable. Sure, you would remember that you were fascinated by the color of the walls of that museum, but which color was it exactly? It never hurts to do a quick image search. The worst-case scenario would be, your memory was accurate, and your guess, on point. You still get to relive the scene and get you in the mood to write about that memory. And that sounds more like a win-win.
Being thorough never hurts. It increases your credibility. No matter how good of a writer you are, if the facts you claim in your memoir aren't true, then you lose that credibility. Your memoir isn't authentic and that puts off the readers. Gaining back that reputation is a difficult task.
When you have set a theme and an outline, and have collected at least enough research material to be able to write the first chapter, all that's left is to get started.
Set a daily word count goal and write without editing. Editing will slow you down. Moreover, it will switch you out of your writer mode, and into a judgment mode. For writing a memoir, you need an unhindered flow of creativity that is free of all judgment.
The best memoirs started as sketchy drafts of the writer's thoughts. But their core ideas were strong and real. The editing can always be taken care of later. Writing is more important than editing.
If you don't have an established writing career with years of experience, then you will face a lot of trouble unleashing your brain on the battle of penned words with raving thoughts for the first time. A simple trick to break the ice is to start freewriting.
Freewriting is when you forget the boundaries and guidelines for once and begin writing whatever comes to your head, then try to make sense of it. Barely a single page of devoted freewriting is enough to get the water running.
And, as we discovered in the last heading, revisiting your memories using whatever material you have connected to the story you want to write about will help a lot in unlocking your writing potential.
Slowly and gradually, one chapter at a time, write the first draft of the book following the outline you devised in the beginning. Review the outline every time you sit down to write so you can refresh the goal in your head and know which direction to go in.
All the practical essentials of writing a memoir will be discussed in a while. Saving this page as a bookmark might come in handy for later after you start to write your memoir formally.
The ending of your memoir should be something that readers find satisfaction in. Satisfaction not in the sense of a happy ending, instead, a deeper sense of accomplishment. After reading all the stories, the culmination of the whole journey is that one idea that all those stories have been building up to. It should be something that people would actually want to know.
Revisit each chapter to collect all the loose ends and take care of them before you pen down the last page of your memoir. The ending is the conclusion of your book. It should leave an impression on the reader that lasts. But most of all, it should fulfill your purpose of writing a memoir.
Make sure you have enough room to test your philosophical side in the ending. Again, remember to be considerate of the readers. Whatever you have to say, if it is not tied to the central idea, the readers are not going to enjoy it. Being considerate does not mean in any way that you limit your honest expression. Do not be afraid to reveal your emotions. Just make sure they're relevant to the memoir that you're writing.
Writing the ending is an emotional roller coaster. If you deeply feel like writing down something, we don't suggest that you stop only because it's not part of the memoir. You can always save it down as notes that you could post on your social media, or in a blog later. But from the point of view of the memoir, what doesn't feed the ultimate conclusion does not fit in the memoir.
The ending is where the theme of your book rises from the background to the forefront. This is where your theme becomes the one, last, big piece you need to complete the puzzle. That's when the picture becomes clear to the readers and it gives them a sense of accomplishment.
After you've finished writing, start editing the draft going through each chapter, page, and line. Edit and improve what you think needs improvement. Cut out anything that's not necessary. Add anything that you think needs to be mentioned.
The mindset in which you wrote those words was not the same as when you ended the book. Now that you've written the ending of your book, you know which parts are actually useful to strengthen and fuel the endgame, and which parts are actually useless in the big picture.
It doesn't matter if you were a high school celebrity. If it has nothing to do with the central idea of your book, no matter how cool and interesting your stories are, they don't have a place in the memoir. Only keep the stories that add value to your central theme.
Of course, it does not mean that you can't describe the scenarios, backgrounds, and other supporting things like that to add flavor and depth to your stories. Knowing when to stop is essential, especially for people who are extroverted by nature and love to talk. When such people become authors of their memoirs or autobiographies, they go crazy while writing.
We never discourage writing, no matter how futile it is for the project at hand. The point is just that it needs to be edited out of the manuscript. You can satisfy yourself by saving such parts in a different document. Who knows, they might come in handy later, just in the same way you're looking at your old notes to write this memoir.
Ideally, you need to find someone else to edit and proofread your book. The author will always be biased towards their own words. A new pair of eyes can provide a fresh perspective on the book and be objective in the job. Self-publishing authors hire editors and proofreaders to polish their memoirs so they can achieve the maximum potential of their memoirs after they're written. Read on to learn tips and strategies to employ during the writing to maximize the impact your memoir has on its readers.
5 Tips to Write a Memoir that People will Love
Theoretically speaking, even if you just compile your memories in a presentable fashion and follow the basic architecture of a book, the product can be acceptably called a memoir. But the fact that you're here trying to put in the effort to learn how to write a memoir that is not just well-written, but also makes its readers move and inspire.
Here's a list of tricks that aren't talked about that often, but they are recognized by battle-hardened memoirists who learned how to write a memoir from invaluable experience and a ton of effort.
Write like it's Fiction
Let's be totally candid. Someone who doesn't know you very well wouldn't go out of their way to read your story. They already have enough things to care about. They already have a ton of books they could rather read and actually enjoy. There has to be a reason they pick up the book and start reading it.
Even after that, the struggle doesn't stop. The author has to write a memoir that keeps the readers hooked till the last page. Evidence suggests that a reader will finish a book if they are interested in the story.
But are readers really interested in the story of a fictional character, someone that doesn't even exist in this world? The secret lies in the story. If you could write a memoir that is actually a captivating story, the readers are going to shrug off their responsibilities to finish reading your memoir.
Fiction stories follow certain structures to make them engaging. If your stories and memories are told in the same fashion, then your book is bound to be a page-turner.
Writing your memoir is not just about writing a book, it's about telling a story that moves the readers. In order to stay the closest to the truth, the author has to make sure they don't deviate from reality.
Making a story interesting in fiction is a relatively easier job. Fiction writers have a lot of creative freedom to create the universe of their dreams. The real challenge lies in using fictional elements to filter reality in a way that makes it sound like a tale worth telling over and over again while keeping it objectively true.
Truth is the essence of a memoir. The first and foremost reason for being truthful in your writing is credibility and general ethics. Secondly, your book is going to stay in the market for some time. At the moment of writing, your perspective and feelings may be different towards the events. The person you portray negatively today might make amends tomorrow, but the way you describe them in the memoir will remain the same. Truth is objective, survives the test of time, and thus protects you from regrets.
However, many people make the mistake of being too considerate about everyone. After a point, being considerate becomes counterproductive in the way of truth. We can either be careful not to hurt anyone, or we can tell things as they are. As long as you're honest about it, if it hurts someone, even if they're one of your loved ones like a father or spouse, it's their problem. The rest of the people would appreciate the honesty.
Take it as an opportunity to share things that you may not be able to in normal circumstances. But keep in mind, this goes both ways. You have to be honest and open about your own flaws and shortcomings too. Things that you wouldn't say out loud every day. Just be careful that you speak the truth.
Continuing from the last point of honesty, your memoir requires you to be a flawed human. There's a sweet satisfaction in the end for the reader when they get to witness the author's journey from a flawed human to a developed personality after experiencing their share of traumas and difficulties.
Memoirs are not superhero stories. The author of a memoir is not a perfect being. The underlying theme itself of memoirs is to offer the readers their books as a resource from which they can learn. The writers of these memoirs have gone through something and there is something valuable to be learned from their experiences.
Imagine if all the writers wrote their memoirs as if they're perfect beings who make no mistake, and even when they do, it's justified. No one would read any of the books in this genre. Nobody would consider memoirs to be non-fiction either. Life is unpredictable, and the best stories are the ones that have a lot of conflict and tension in them.
The hero is the person who grows through their experiences until they become a person who overcomes their limitations and succeeds. If you need a better understanding of why being vulnerable and truthful go hand in hand, read some of the memoir examples that you can get a hand on. Just for the sake of learning how the writers are writing books in that genre.
As we discussed earlier, writing a memoir like it is a fictional story is ideal to make it interesting and something that readers will be engaged in until the end. But fiction and reality are not the same. Real stories are often boring and bland if you follow them linearly.
For the reader to enjoy reading the book, the story has to have an overarching idea. That idea should be divided into smaller and more digestible story arcs. Each arc can have a different theme but they have to be connected to the central idea of the book. Each story should help the progress towards its completion, and each arc should help push the main story forward.
It doesn't matter if your family history is glorious, if you were popular in high school, or if you're a single father. Does it relate to the topic of focus? Does it help progress the book forward? If yes, then dive deep into it and feel free to write your heart out. As long as it directly connects to the story and actually holds some utility in progressing the story forward, it's always convenient to want to write about a certain aspect of your life. That's why you want to write the memoir in the first place.
If the experiences that you really want to share do not connect to the story, then other than your loved ones, nobody would be willing to read about those experiences of your life. A reader only finishes the books that compel them to find the answers. It's difficult to finish a book when there is no reward at the end. In that scenario, they lose interest the very moment they stop relating to the author.
Write your stories in a way that creates tension and conflict and keeps the readers hooked.
Ask the Right Questions
A great deal of your time while writing a memoir is spent trying to answer the questions that you have struggled to comprehend throughout your whole life. But when you have compiled all related memories in one spot, it is easier to connect dots and make sense out of the most complex of ideas.
Be your own therapist and ask yourself the right questions to lead yourself to such depths of your heart that have been untouched for a while. A lot of people hire ghostwriters for writing memoirs even when they have the time and writing skill to produce a great book.
They do so because when it comes to memoirs and autobiographies, a professional ghostwriter knows the secrets of the trade. They know which buttons to press and what questions to ask. Even if it's uncomfortable for the client, a major part of ghostwriting a memoir is to explore the darkest, deepest depths of the author's minds, and try to untangle such complex thoughts that the author would never deliberately contest with.
If you're writing the memoir on your own and, for some reason, do not plan to hire a ghostwriter to write your memoir for you, you can try talking to someone you trust. Your closest friend can often help you uncover truths about yourself that you tend to ignore or overlook whether knowingly or not.
If you follow these tips and the process that we've shared about how to write a memoir, then you would probably become the author of a great memoir. And even if it doesn't become a marketing success, you would still be contented with leaving such a memoir behind that people would read for years to come and remember you as a person with a valuable message to share with the world.