Memoir is not just a fancy literary term for an autobiography. I say that from the start, because I hear the terms used interchangeably so often.
Your memoir will be autobiographical, but it will not be your life story.
Confused yet? Stay with me.
Simply put, an autobiography is likely to cover one’s birth to the present — emphasis often on accomplishments, but the more honest and revelatory the better.
A memoir draws on selected anecdotes from your life to support a theme and make a point. For instance, if your point is how you came from some unlikely place to where you are now, you would choose scenes from your life to support that.
Maybe you came from:
- The wrong side of the tracks
- A broken home
- Having been a victim of abuse
- An orphanage
To a position of:
You might start with memories that show how bad things once were for you. Then you would show pivotal experiences in your life, important people in your transformation, what you learned, and how you applied certain principles to see this vast change.
Naturally, the better the stories, the better the memoir. However, great stories are not the point — and frankly, neither is the memoirist (you).
What Publishers Look For
Don’t buy into the idea that only famous people can sell a memoir. Sure, if you’re a household name and people are curious about you, that’s an advantage.
But memoirs by nobodies succeed all the time — and for one reason: they resonate with readers because readers identify with truth. Truth, even hard, gritty, painful truth, bears transferrable principles.
Memoirs full of such relatable candor attract readers, and readers are what publishers want. An astute agent or acquisitions editor can predict how relatable a memoir will be and take a chance on one from an unpublished unknown.
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’s about what readers can gain from your story.
It may seem counterintuitive to think reader-first while writing in the first-person about yourself. But if your memoir doesn’t enrich, entertain, or enlighten readers, they won’t stay with it long, and they certainly won’t recommend it.
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How to Write a Memoir in 4 Steps
- Know Your Theme
- Carefully Select Your Anecdotes
- Write It Like a Novel
- Tell Your Story (Without Throwing People Under the Bus)
Step 1. Know Your Theme
And remember, it’s not that you’ve made something of yourself — even if you have. Sorry, but nobody cares except those who already love you.
Your understated theme must be, “You’re not alone. What happened to me can also happen to you.”
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 their own lives.
Imagine a reader picking up your memoir and thinking, What’s in this for me? The more of that you offer, the more successful your book will be. Think transferable principles in a story well told.
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 wants and fears, readers will 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 tells the story of her love for her child or grandchild, it reaches my core.
Knowing or understanding or relating to nothing else about her, I understand love of family.
Worried About Uniqueness?
Many writers tell me they fear their theme has been covered many times by many other memoirists. While it’s true, as the Bible says, that there’s nothing new under the sun, no one has written your story, your memoir, your way.
While I still say it’s not about you but really about your reader, it’s you who lends uniqueness to your theme. Write on!
How to Write a Memoir Without Preaching
Trust your narrative to do the work of conveying your message. Too many amateurish 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.
You can avoid being preachy by using what I call the Come Alongside Method. When you show what happened to you, if the principles apply to your reader he doesn’t need that pointed out. Give him credit.
Step 2. Carefully 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 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 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 will be your memoir.
Step 3. 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 and the car door open and shut, 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.
In his classic How to Write Bestselling Fiction, novelist Dean Koontz outlines what he calls the Classic Story Structure. Though intended as a framework for a novel, it strikes me that this would be perfect for a memoir too — provided you don’t change true events just to make it work.
For fiction, Koontz recommends writers:
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 purposes, Koontz’s 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. If your experience happens to fit the rest of the structure, so much the better.
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 just took the air out of the tension balloon, and many readers would agree and see no reason to read on. 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 4. Tell Your Story (Without Throwing People Under the Bus)
If you’re brave enough to expose your own weaknesses, foibles, embarrassments, and yes, failures to the world, what about those of your friends, enemies, loved ones, teachers, bosses, and co-workers?
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 the one hand I’m telling you your memoir is worthless without the grit, and 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 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 to Avoid
- 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
Your goal is to hook your reader, so begin in medias res—in the middle of things.
If you start slowly, you lose readers interest. Jump right into the story!
Thoroughly immerse yourself 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
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Are you working on your memoir or planning to? Do you have any questions on how to write a memoir? Share with me in the comments below.