Memoir is not just a fancy literary term for an autobiography. I say that from the start, because I so often hear the terms incorrectly interchanged.
Your memoir will be autobiographical, of course, but it can’t be about you.
Confused yet? Stay with me.
Autobiography vs. Memoir: What’s the Difference?
An autobiography is your life story from birth to the present.
A memoir is theme-oriented with anecdotes from your life that buttress a specific theme.
Too many authors write a memoir because they believe their lives are so interesting that even strangers would enjoy a detailed account.
Don’t misunderstand, maybe you are interesting.
All of us are, to a degree. I hardly know anyone who doesn’t have a story.
But unless you’re a celebrity, a household name, most people beyond your family and close friends aren’t likely to care.
They care about themselves and what your book offers them.
So your theme must be reader-oriented, offering universally true transferable principles that will help them.
The closest I have come to writing my own memoir, Writing for the Soul, uses selected anecdotes about famous and interesting people I’ve met to illustrate points I make about writing.
Had I merely written an autobiography and not offered writing instruction, it would’ve been largely ignored.
So your memoir should draw on anecdotes from your life selected to show how you progressed from some unlikely place to where you are today.
In that way, it’s about you, but it’s for the benefit of the reader.
- From the other side of the tracks
- From a broken home
- A victim of abuse
- A recovered addict
- An orphan
Yet you have achieved:
- Financial security
You might start with how bad things once were for you and how unlikely it was that you would escape your situation.
Then you would show pivotal experiences and people important to your transformation, what you learned, and how your life changed.
Naturally, the better your stories and the more significant your change (in fiction we call this character arc), the better your memoir.
However, great stories are not the point — and frankly, neither is the memoirist (you).
The point is reader takeaway.
Readers should be able to apply to themselves and their own situations the larger truths and principles your theme imparts.
That way, you don’t have to awkwardly try to apply your message to them. Ideally, they’ll do it for themselves.
They may be enduring something entirely different from what you did, yet your story gives them hope.
What Publishers Look For
Don’t buy into the idea that only famous people can sell a memoir.
Memoirs by previous nobodies succeed all the time—and for one reason: they resonate with readers because readers identify with them.
Truth, especially the hard, gritty, painful stuff, bears transferable principles.
Such candor attracts readers, and readers are what publishers want.
An astute agent or acquisitions editor recognizes how relatable a memoir will be and takes a chance on one.
Agents and editors tell me they love to discover such gems — the same way they love discovering the next great novelist.
So, when writing your memoir…
You may be the subject, but it’s not about you.
It may seem counterintuitive to think reader-first while writing in first-person about yourself, but readers long to be changed by your story.
Give them insight about life through your experiences. Give them the tools they need to overcome their own struggles, even if they’re not at all like yours. Give them a model for overcoming.
Couch it in entertaining, educational, and emotional stories, and they’ll not only stay with you till the last page, but they’ll also recommend your memoir to their friends.
How to Write a Memoir
- Settle On Your Theme
- Select Your Anecdotes
- Outline Your Book
- Write It Like a Novel
- Avoid Throwing People Under the Bus
Step 1. Settle On Your Theme
Your unstated theme must be, “You’re not alone. If I overcame this, you can overcome anything.”
That’s what appeals to readers. Even if they do come away from your memoir impressed with you, it won’t be because you’re so special — even if you are. Whether they admit it or not, readers care most about themselves.
They’re reading your memoir wondering, What’s in this for me? The more transferable principles you offer in a story well told, the more successful your book will be.
All people, regardless of age, ethnicity, location, and social status, share certain felt needs: food, shelter, and love. They fear abandonment, loneliness, and the loss of loved ones. Regardless your theme, if it touches on any of those needs and fears, readers can identify.
I can read the memoir of someone of my opposite gender, for whom English is not her first language, of a different race and religion, who lives halfway around the world from me — and if she writes of her love for her child or grandchild, it reaches me.
Knowing or understanding or relating to nothing else about her, I understand love of family.
How to Write a Memoir Without Preaching
Trust your narrative to convey your message. Too many memoirists feel the need to eventually turn the spotlight on the reader with a sort of “So, how about you…?”
Let your experiences and how they impacted you make their own points, and trust the reader to get it. Beat him over the head with your theme and you run him off.
Avoid being preachy by using what I call the Come Alongside Method. Show what happened to you and what you learned, and if the principles apply to your reader, give him credit for being smart enough to get it.
Step 2. Select Your Anecdotes
The best memoirs let readers see themselves in your story so they can identify with your experiences and apply to their own lives the lessons you’ve learned.
If you’re afraid to mine your pain deeply enough to tell the whole truth, you may not be ready to write your memoir. There’s little less helpful — or marketable — than a memoir that glosses over the truth.
So, feature the anecdotes from your life that support your theme, regardless how painful it is to resurrect the memories. The more introspective and vulnerable you are, the more effective your memoir will be.
Create a list of events in your life and their impact on you. These may be major events like a war, your parents’ divorce, a graduation, a wedding, or the loss of a dear friend or relative.
But they may also be seemingly mundane life events that for some reason affected you deeply. Just make sure they support your theme.
Who is unforgettable and what role did they play in making you the person you’ve become?
Interview family and friends for different perspectives. Peruse photographs, revisit meaningful places, research dates, the weather, and relevant history.
Step 3. Outline Your Book
Without a clear vision, trying to write a memoir will likely end in disaster. There’s no substitute for an outline.
One that changed the course of my writing career is novelist Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure, spelled out in his classic How to Write Bestselling Fiction. Though obviously intended as a framework for a novel, I discovered it applies perfectly to almost any genre (including TV sitcoms, if you can believe it).
And fortunately, for the purposes of my subject today, Koontz’s classic story structure serves a memoir beautifully too.
Here it is in a nutshell:
1 — Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible
2 — Everything he does to try to get out of it makes it only progressively worse until…
3 — His situation appears hopeless
4 — But in the end, because of what he’s learned and how he’s grown through all those setbacks, he rises to the challenge and wins the day.
You might be able to structure your memoir the same way merely by how you choose to tell the story. As I say, don’t force things, but the closer you can get to that structure, the more engaging your memoir will be.
For your memoir, naturally you’re the main character.
And the Terrible Trouble would be the nadir of your life. (If nadir is a new word for you, it’s the opposite of zenith.)
Take the reader with you to your lowest point, and show what you did to try to remedy things.
But what about that “as soon as possible” caveat?
Maybe your terrible trouble didn’t manifest itself until later in life.
Fine, start there. The backstory can emerge as you progress, but you’ll find his structure and sequencing will make for the most compelling read.
Important in fiction as well as in a memoir is to be sure your reader is invested in the main character enough to care when he is plunged into terrible trouble.
While in fiction that means some hint of the stakes — he’s a husband, a father, has suffered some loss, etc. If that’s also true of you, subtly inject it.
Also in a memoir, you want to promise a good outcome, some form of your own wonder at who you are no compared to who you once were or destined to be. That way readers can take from your story that things can dramatically change for the better in their lives too.
One of the reasons this structure works so well in fiction is because it’s often true in real life.
If you’ve become a successful, happy person despite an unfortunate background, it’s likely that you tried many times to fix things, only to see them deteriorate until you developed the ability to break through.
All Koontz, and I, are saying is to emphasize that.
Keep your outline to a single page for now.
Then develop a synopsis with a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover.
Write this is present tense. “I enroll in college only to find that…”
And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept.
It doesn’t have to be rendered in Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters and then numerals, unless that serves you best.
Just a list of sentences that synopsize your idea works fine too.
And remember, it’s a fluid document meant to serve you and your book. Play with it, rearrange it as you see fit — even during the writing.
Step 4. Write It Like a Novel
It’s as important in a memoir as it is in a novel to show and not just tell.
My father was a drunk who abused my mother and me. I was scared to death every time I heard him come in late at night.
As soon as I heard the gravel crunch beneath the tires, I dove under my bed.
I could tell by his footsteps whether Dad was sober and tired or loaded and looking for a fight.
I prayed God would magically make me big enough to jump between him and my mom, because she was always his first target…
Worry less about chronology than theme.
You’re not married to the autobiographer’s progressive timeline.
Tell whatever anecdote fits your point for each chapter, regardless where they fall on the calendar.
Just make the details clear so the reader knows where you are in the story.
You might begin with the most significant memory of your life, even from childhood.
Then you can segue into something like, “Only now do I understand what was really happening.” Your current-day voice can always drop in to tie things together.
As in a novel, how the protagonist (in this case, you) grows is critical to a successful story. Your memoir should make clear the difference between who you are today and who you once were. What you learn along the way becomes your character arc.
Point of View
It should go without saying that you write a memoir in the first-person. And just as in a novel, the point-of-view character is the one with the problem, the challenge, something he’s after. Tell both your outer (what happens) and your inner (its impact on you) story.
Setups and Payoffs
Great novels carry a book-length setup that demands a payoff in the end, plus chapter-length setups and payoffs, and sometimes even the same within scenes. The more of these the better.
The same is true for your memoir. Virtually anything that makes the reader stay with you to find out what happens is a setup that demands a payoff. Even something as seemingly innocuous as your saying that you hoped high school would deliver you from the torment of junior high makes the reader want to find out if that proved true.
Make ‘em Wait
Avoid using narrative summary to give away too much information too early. I’ve seen memoir manuscripts where the author tells in the first paragraph how they went from abject poverty to independent wealth in 20 years, “…and I want to tell you how that happened.”
To me, that takes the air right out of the tension balloon.
Many readers would agree and see no reason to continue reading.
Better to set them up for a payoff and let them wait.
Not so long that you lose them to frustration, but long enough to build tension.
Step 5. Avoid Throwing People Under the Bus
If you’re brave enough to expose your own weaknesses, foibles, embarrassments, and yes, even your failures to the world, what about your friends, enemies, loved ones, teachers, bosses, and coworkers?
If you tell the truth, are you allowed to throw them under the bus?
In some cases, yes.
But should you?
Even if they gave you permission in writing, what’s the upside?
Usually a person painted in a negative light — even if the story is true — would not sign a release allowing you to expose them publicly.
But even if they did, would it be the right, ethical, kind thing to do?
All I can tell you is that I wouldn’t do it. And I wouldn’t want it done to me.
If the Golden Rule alone isn’t reason enough not to do it, the risk of being sued certainly ought to be.
So, What to Do?
On one hand, I’m telling you your memoir is worthless without the grit. On the other, I’m telling you not to expose the evildoers.
Here’s the solution:
Changing names to protect the guilty is not enough. Too many people in your family and social orbit will know the person, making your writing legally actionable.
So change more than just the name.
Change the location. Change the year. Change their gender. You could even change the offense.
If your own father verbally abused you so painfully when you were thirteen that you still suffer from the memory decades later, attribute it to a teacher and have it happen at an entirely different age.
Is that lying in a nonfiction book? Not if you include a disclaimer upfront that stipulates: “Some names and details have been changed to protect identities.”
So, no, don’t throw anyone under the bus. But don’t stop that bus!
Common Memoir Mistakes
- Making it too much like an autobiography (missing a theme)
- Including minutiae
- Glossing over the truth
- Effecting the wrong tone: funny, sarcastic, condescending
How to Start Your Memoir
Start slowly by setting the stage or explaining family dynamics and your reader will soon lose interest.
Hook your reader from page one by beginning in medias res — in the middle of things. That doesn’t mean it has to be slam-bang action, but something must be happening.
Thoroughly immerse yourself in this genre before attempting to write in it. I read nearly 50 memoirs before I wrote mine (Writing for the Soul). Here’s a list to get you started:
- All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (my favorite book ever)
- Cultivate by Lara Casey
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn
- Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
- Molina by Benjie Molina and Joan Ryan
- Undone by Michele Cushatt
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken? By Sean Dietrich