How to write a memoir

How to Write Your Memoir: A 5-Step Guide

4 May 2020 Nonfiction

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.

You may have heard both of these genres associated with creative nonfiction.

What is Creative Nonfiction?

The term can seem confusing, but it’s all about telling a compelling true story while using the same kinds of elements found in good fiction to make it sing.

Creative Nonfiction is a term that can be applied to a wide array of genres,  including memoir, autobiography, biography, travel writing, personal essays, interviews, blogs, and more. Actually, it should be characteristic of almost any form of nonfiction.

In many ways, Creative Nonfiction reads like fiction while sticking to the facts. It allows you to tell a true story in a most compelling way by employing narrative elements like foreshadowing, backstory, dialog, conflict, tension, description, and more.

Such elements aren’t in themselves fictional. Your story remains absolutely true, but such tools enhance the reading experience.

Some nonfiction is designed primarily to educate and inform (think textbooks, how-to books, or self-help books), but would argue that even these can benefit from Creative Nonfiction techniques. Why not build a narrative that helps readers best relate to the content and become immersed in it?

Memoirs (from the French and Latin for “memory” or “remembrance”) by definition focus on your personal experience, intimacy with the reader, and reflecting both transferable principles and universal emotional truth.

That’s why, ironic as it may sound, a memoir should be as much about the reader as the writer. Yes, it’s your story, based on your experience, but unless readers see a bit of themselves in it, what’s the point? You will have written a book that is merely about something, rather than for the purpose of something.

So what can Creative Nonfiction bring to your memoir? Resonance. Relatability. Accessibility.

And how will it manifest itself? By triggering the theater of the readers’ minds so they can feel the story, imagine themselves in it, experience it with you.

Most importantly, convey your emotional truth. Show how your experiences, challenges, and lessons learned made you feel, how you coped, and the impact they had on your personal or spiritual growth.

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 some degree. I know hardly anyone who doesn’t have a story.

But unless you’re a celebrity, sorry but most people beyond your family and close friends aren’t likely to care.

They care about themselves and how your personal story might somehow benefit them.

So your theme must be reader-oriented, offering universal truth, transferable principles that will help them become a better person or get them through whatever crisis they might be facing.

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.

Should You Write a Memoir?

While you don’t have to be famous to write a great memoir, you must tell a story that educates, entertains, and emotionally moves the reader.

You may write a memoir without intending to traditionally publish it. You might write it for only your family and friends.

I’m here to help, regardless your reason for writing your memoir.

What Should Your Memoir Be About?

Your memoir should draw on anecdotes from your life 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.

Maybe you’re:

  • 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
  • Acceptance
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Faith

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 a character arc), the better your memoir.

However, great stories are not the point — and frankly, neither is the memoir writer (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 that 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. Sure, they might be able to get away with a recitation of their daily routines, because people are interested in the minutiae of the famous.

But memoirs by the largely unknown succeed for one reason: they resonate because readers identify with them.

Truth, especially the hard, gritty, painful stuff, bears that universal truth and those transferable principles I mentioned above.

Candor and self-revelation attracts readers, and readers are what publishers want.

Astute agents or publishers’ acquisitions editors recognize how relatable a memoir will be.

Agents and editors tell me they love to discover such gems — the same way they love discovering the next great novelist.

The key is a compelling story told with creative writing.

So, when writing your memoir…

Remember, you’re the subject, but it’s not really 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

  1. Settle On Your Theme
  2. Select Your Anecdotes
  3. Outline Your Book
  4. Write It Like a Novel
  5. 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.

Cosmic Commonalities

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 of 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 the love of family.

How to Write a Memoir Without Preaching

Trust your narrative to convey your message. Too many memoir writers 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. Show what happened to you and what you learned, and if the principles apply to your readers, give them 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 the lessons you’ve learned to their own lives.

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 nothing a 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.

Potential agents or publishers require in your proposal a synopsis of where you’re going, and they also need to know that you know.

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 now 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 in the 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.

Example:

Telling

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.

Showing

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…

Use every tool in the novelist’s arsenal to make each anecdote come to life: dialogue, description, conflict, tension, pacing, everything.

These will make sure you grab your readers’ attention and keep it — because these tools ensure that they’ll become engrossed in your story.

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.

Character Arc

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 story (what happens) and your inner story (its impact on you).

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?

No.

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.

Stalemate? No.

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

Memoirs aren’t a chronological history of everything that’s happened in your life. Make sure your theme is strong, compelling, and reader-focused. If the stories you include don’t speak to your theme, cut them.

Including minutiae

Use only the details that matter. Have a large family or circle of friends, only a few of whom were critical to your outcome? Leave most of them out. Avoid describing day-to-day experiences or descriptions unless they directly relate to your theme.

Bragging

Your memoir isn’t the place for touting your achievements. You’ll turn readers off. Describe your challenges and emotional truths authentically. Own your successes but stay humble. Memoir is about the journey more than the destination.

Glossing over the truth

Writing a memoir will challenge you emotionally. It can be hard to revisit tough times or traumatic experiences — but unless you tell the whole truth, your readers won’t be able to relate and your story will fall flat.

Preaching

How can you avoid sounding preachy or overbearing in your writing? Look for any time you use the words “must,” “should,” “ought,” or “have to,” and then find ways to reword your sentences using the Come Alongside Method to encourage, inspire, or suggest instead.

Affecting the wrong tone

Your memoir isn’t a place to be flippant, sarcastic, or condescending. You can be lighthearted at times, but use humor judiciously. Don’t try to cover up your emotional truth with lame jokes. Your story won’t feel authentic and your readers will lose interest.

How to Start Your Memoir

Start slowly by setting the stage or explaining family dynamics and you’ll soon lose your reader’s attention.

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.

Not sure exactly where to start? No problem.

You don’t have to know the best beginning for your book in order to start writing — and you shouldn’t procrastinate indefinitely until you figure it out.

Instead, many memoir writers only discover their strongest potential opening as a last step. Decide what stories you’ll include, write those, and choose the best one once you see what you have to work with.

Memoir Examples

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:

  1. All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (my favorite book ever)

The Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter tells the story of growing up dirt poor in Alabama with a father who had a “murderous temper” and a mother who went 18 years without a new dress to make sure her kids had a better life.

  1. Cultivate by Lara Casey

Part inspiration and part practical guide, Lara’s insight helps women who feel “inadequate, overwhelmed, and exhausted” to find grace through cultivating what matters most.

  1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

One of Hemingway’s most beloved books, this memoir provides a fascinating snapshot of his life as a writer in 1920s Paris.

  1. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Modern Library named this classic book, written in 1937, as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. In it, Karen describes her experiences running a coffee farm with her husband in Kenya in 1914.

  1. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The history of Frank McCourt’s “miserable Irish Catholic childhood” and how stories helped him to survive slums and starvation and ultimately thrive as a professional storyteller.

  1. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn

In a much anticipated follow-up to her first memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta tells the story of the second half of her life. She writes about the stresses of fame and candidly discusses her often turbulent relationship with the husband she married at age 13.

  1. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

A moving and insightful look into one of the greatest comedians ever — including Steve’s creative process, his incredible work ethic, and why he walked away during the height of his career.

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion’s story of marriage, family life, and unexpected tragedy will touch anyone who’s ever loved and lost a spouse or child.

  1. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

After divorce splits his family, a young Toby Woolf runs away to Alaska, forges checks, and steals cars — then redefines his life.

  1. Molina by Benjie Molina and Joan Ryan

The story of a father who raised 3 famous major league baseball catchers and left a legacy of “loyalty, humility, courage, and the true meaning of success.”

  1. Undone by Michele Cushatt

Michele’s story of divorce, cancer, and integrating a new family shows readers how embracing faith and letting go of the need to control can lead to a vibrant life despite chaos and messiness.

  1. Will the Circle Be Unbroken? By Sean Dietrich

Sean’s story of love, loss, and the unthinkable gives readers hope for a future that breaks the destructive cycles of previous generations.

Turn Your Life Story Into a Captivating Memoir

If you’ve ever thought about writing a memoir (or wondered if you should even try), you now have everything you need.

Think about your theme. What have you learned that could help others? How will you tell your stories to inspire your readers and change lives?

Brush up on the 7 essential story elements to make sure your memoir is as relatable as possible.

And once you’re ready to get started, head over to How to Outline a Nonfiction Book in 5 Steps.

65 thoughts on “How to Write Your Memoir: A 5-Step Guide

  1. This is encouraging to me and I’m sure many other aspiring memoirists – it’s easy to find a publisher if you’re a somebody, but a nobody? Your work has to show and show well. Appreciate the encouragement!

  2. My desire is to write my story, however, I always say it isn’t all mine to tell. I haven’t yet reconciled my perspective verses the others that play a part in it. And if course there are many huge parts. Where to start? Sometimes when friends introduce me they say, “Her life could be a Lifetime movie.” That is a bit overwhelming!

  3. I was merely a wife and mommy, making lots and lots of mistakes until 1992, when I contracted Viral Encephalitis. I want to tell the story of how this affected me, affected the dancer within, and how I managed to find peace and glory at the end of my struggles.
    I am also the subject of a court case that actually changed one of the laws in my state, when my parents became embroiled in a very nasty battle concerning my paternity. This was the 60’s, so there was no DNA evidence to see. They were married, just not to each other. I have a lot to say about all of the struggles and events of my life. I think it would make a very good story, and everyone I have let read what I have so far, agrees.

  4. I’m trying to write the story of my daughter (biography?). I didn’t start out wanting to write a memoir, but that is what is emerging: how her life changed mine, and how my view of her life changed through reading her journals. Your suggestions make me wonder whether I need to start over from the perspective of writing a memoir (my story) as it was impacted by hers. Up until now I haven’t felt like my story is very interesting, whereas hers, I think, is very interesting and impactful. People are waiting to read her story, and I wouldn’t want to betray them as they discover it’s actually my story. Food for thought.

  5. Hard at work, Jerry! Every day further, the deep waters stretching my limits and limbs, emptying my lungs of breath and story, but there is healing here. Thanks for your words!

  6. Hi Jerry, This is so helpful to me. Thank you! I was a Buddhist and God has placed this burden on my heart to tell what He has done in my life. My name is Nita Tin. I have met you several times at Moody President’s Forums for several years and you gave me your card and told me to get in touch with you, but I just had it on my desk. I have had this calling to write my memoirs for more than 15 years now and have always put it aside to take care of things on the front burner, things which will not count for eternity. I have finally come to the place of obedience knowing that God could remove my candlestick and joined your group. God has drawn me to Himself with loving kindness and removed me from the domain of darkness into the marvelous light of His Son, drew me out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay….. and put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God: Many will see and fear. And will trust in the LORD…

  7. Very good information and points. I self-published some what of a memoir where I used several of my bad and abusive life situations as examples on how the reader can overcome them by trusting in God and his spiritual team. The goal of the book is to help people know they are not alone and they can heal.

  8. Thanks again for the inspiration Jerry. It is very timely. After enduring a “concentration camp” like life, I’ve been endeavouring to deal with the grief and pain that has been my shadow for the last seventy years.
    After having endured this trial, I have nothing. No family (my children were taught by their sociopathic mother, never to speak to me, never to listen to me. A memorial that burns brightly to this day) no social resources and staring down homelessness every day.

    So doing this memoir work is real pick and shovel work, let me tell you. It gets so bad that I have to stop writing for one and two weeks at a time because of the regurgitated pain and stuff. Having endured this stuff in my mind and heart twenty-four-seven, for the last seventy years, it get tedious and can only bear very short stints with pen in hand to write.

    However, may I recommend “Write Your Memoir” by Allan Hunter. He directs the writer to focus on the spiritual aspect of the memoir process, and is highly effective in inducing the writer to focus on drawing out the meaningful aspects of the individuals experience. Highly recommended.

  9. I am writing a biography/ memoir that involves our oldest daughter who was nearly killed in an automobile accident about 4 years ago. She is still in a minimal conscious state, unable to speak or move purposefully, but responding with her eyes, her smile, and an occasional chuckle to familiar faces, funny sounds, and activities around her. The crucial back story is that she was in an emotionally abusive marriage at the time of the accident. Even though she was seeking the Lord’s answer to these problems, she would become quite depressed with the life that she and her two little daughters were in. Then on her way to a Christian women’s conference specifically for mothers of preschoolers, the car she was riding in was involved in an accident caused by a sleepy or distracted semi truck driver leaving our daughter with catastrophic brain damage and killing another woman in the car. The story is a journey in faith because the Lord miraculously intervened in so many details of the accident and the days, weeks, and months or her early recovery. It is my memoir/ our family’s memoir in that the Lord has taught me so much about forgiveness, faith in His ability to heal Katie, and waiting on His timing for more complete healing, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for everyone concerned. I am 60+pages into the writing. I struggle with how much to say about family past and how to write about her husband’s emotional abuse without getting into legal trouble because he doesn’t really acknowledge his problem. (I read your article on how not to throw a family member under the bus) I am writing with the hopes that at some point Katie will be able to add her own details. (There has been a rollercoaster of improved skills and loss of skills for her- but overall slight degrees of improvement in her consciousness.) But I want this to be God honoring all the way.

  10. The key will be to tell that story in the language of the audience, in essence acknowledging where they’re coming from. Inside lingo will limit it to the crowd that needs it least. It’ll encourage them, but I assume you want to reach a wider audience, those like you before you came to faith.

  11. Putting on my editor’s cap, Debra, I believe her story IS your story, and telling it from your perspective is the way to go. That actually sounds like the perfect recipe for a memoir. How My Daughter Changed My Life.

  12. Sounds interesting, Tammy, but remember, transferable truths will make it work.

  13. Michelle, imagine yourself sitting across from the one person you want the most to hear this story, and begin: “Let me tell you what happened to me…”

    I think you meant ‘versus’ there, not ‘verses.’ And as for the others who play a part, you might find this interesting: http://bit.ly/2aXZGRT

  14. Exactly, Katie. How many names did you recognize in my list of suggested memoirs? Surely not more than half.

  15. Good points Jerry! Thank you. I self-published a memoir about 1.5 years ago — knowing that I had not really worked through some of these issues. I’d been working on it for 15 years and needed to ‘get it done’. Now I’m feeling like I published too ‘soon’ and would like to fix some of it. Do you think it is too late?

  16. Excellent tips, Jerry. I’m working on a memoir about a young lady whose “hobby” is serial sex. How far can I go without it turning into porn?

  17. I wrote 45, 1-3 page stories, starting with my tiny spirit in Heaven, begging God to send me to Earth to be born, my young years, elem. & high school, college, seminary, and up until I was 35 (I’m 68 now) and I stopped because few were commenting on my blog. I thought I was writing my memoirs, but now I see I wasn’t. These true and honest writings were quite emotional at times and they opened my spiritual eyes to how God was helping me to heal through all my many disappointments that made me feel invisible. As I wrote, God revealed to me how many times I was blessed by Him through so many people. My purpose was to show my precious readers how God was/is with us all through all our trials, whether good, bad, or ugly, and with Him by our side we can survive any problem and grow through each one. It’s been a year since I stopped writing them and I miss them. I’m not sure whether to continue.
    Anyone interested in reading my non “memoirs” can visit my website:
    http://www.kathystorrie.com

  18. Yes, my whole purpose is to reach a wide audience. To keep the interest of those who do not know! It starts off with Nepal where I was invited to train over 1000 Nepalese church planters in Kathmandu, our Mr Everest adventure, slowly unraveling my Buddhist heritage, a despot Burmese government, leaving the land of the pagodas on $20, while God pursued me with His relentless love

  19. Thank you for the reply. I read the article immediately after posting the comment and it was very helpful.

  20. I’m on the third draft of my memoir about staying sober through going totally blind, and the people who helped me along the way. I just sent my first chapter to my writer’s group and have gotten excellent feedback. The best one though? A person giving me a link to this post, saying I might find it helpful, but that I’m following all the suggestions anyway. She had no idea that I’ve been studying under you for months now. YES!

  21. I finished my memoirs and it sits at the feet of agents. I tried to follow all those tips you gave me. I read several missionaries’ books, so I made mine different. One theme, the 1st sentence puts me in trouble and it continues chapter after chapter. Each chapter is written like a 3 box cartoon, set up, story, punchline (may or may not be funny like AIDS, war wounded children). The punchline is designed for the reader to read one more short chapter. I also cartoon blog my memoirs, twice a week. This past week I sent out 100 postcards to churches about my blog and speaking. I am trying to generate interest for my book. My memoirs are filled with humor because when I speak that is what comes out of my mouth. My editor only made two thousand changes and said she laughed out loud. A tourniquet was needed for the blood. I am writing another family based story without the humor. And if no agent accepts it, then I am willing to go through those 21 ideas, again. Thank you for the tips!

  22. Thank you so much for this, Jerry. I started writing a memoir years ago but stopped because even though it’s my story, EVEN I DIDN’T LIKE IT. It was boring and who would care anyway.
    I know I want to show people how I’ve changed emotionally and spiritually after many years of dealing with a stroke at age 34 (NOT supposed to happen!) The whole point is how God changed my anger and self-contempt and by changing my focus.
    Starting in the middle should help, I think. How do you put in backstory without a huge flashback? How do you sprinkle it in so the reader sees where things were before?

  23. I started writing something and ended up getting distracted by the number by my name. So I hit the key, mid comment and the site left me on the curb. LOL I was saying, I had wrote some memoirs of people who taught me lessons without a word. I wrote through their actions, portraying them through concrete nouns and verbs, using metaphor and imagery to get my message across. Memoir writing satisfied my need to relish/cherish relationships through the written word. It served to picture the paths of those who’ve gone before, whose memory are sealed in words, like a backup photographed in imagery.

  24. Hi Jerry, thank you so very much for your tips! I wrote a short memoir about my three-day old firstborn twin son’s death and how I found comfort and hope in HIM.. I self-published it in May this year.. I wanted to bring some hope to bereaved parents, especially of infants, that this is not the end.. GOD will comfort us and we have the hope that we will meet them again in heaven soon.. I would appreciate your feedback and suggestions on My Angel in Heaven hyperurl.co/15290o

  25. Good tips except for the show don’t tell. It looks like you’re advising the memoirist to create something they don’t remember. I thought memoir is creative nonfiction. Nothing not recalled or verified should be included.

  26. I’ve written my memoir concerning the changing attributes of motherhood in the last fifty years. I have had it edited and rewritten it several times. “Milk and Cookies Mom” relays a story of when my mom was a working mom and a minority and I was a stay-at-home mom forty years later and a minority.

  27. Thank you for this very informative post. I have been considering writing a memoir from the point of view of my life as an “Army brat”, but haven’t really had any idea how to go about it. This helps, and I will definitely check out some of the examples you listed. I mostly have written fiction, but I do have something along this line that I am putting the finishing touches on, which will have the story of my NDE in a terrible auto accident years ago with my first husband, although I have written it more as a “faith book”, sharing what all I have learned through the years on my road to healing. I have made a point to try NOT to sound preachy, but more helpful. But I really have wanted to do the “Army brat” memoir, but didn’t have a clue how to write it in a way that anyone else would want to read it. This very helpful post shines a light of hope on it. Thanks!

  28. I did submit my manuscript to literary agents and book publishers who were looking for new age/spiritual material, but it was rejected. Thing is people who have read my book find it interesting.

  29. Hi Jerry. I love this post. I’m writing a memoir with a working title of Embracing freedom, from locked down to abundant life. It’s about living in a psychiatric hospital but now experiencing joy filled abundance despite the circumstances. Thanks for this awesome info on making it a heartfelt experience for my readers. Aimeecaverly.com

  30. I’ve been struggling with choosing a theme. An assignment in a writer’s group gave me focus on what I’ve tried to find.

    Where is Home?

    Long, long years ago
    Our grandparents had no problem
    When asked a simple question
    “Where are you from?”

    The answer was quite evident
    As clear as the rising sun
    Their speech gave them away
    Their talk revealed their roots.

    Today the answer’s not so clear
    My face, my voice, my intonation
    Can keep you guessing —
    mostly wrong – as to where I am from.

    I was born far away in the North; I grew up far South,
    My parents took me East; I moved to the West
    Is there any place I still call home?
    Is there anyone who still knows my name?

    I’m only one of millions, moving around the globe
    Some call me a TCK – a Third Culture Kid
    Some say I am a nomad – moving from place to place
    The seas of change have thrown me across oceans far away

    I try to find a place to live;
    I’m a stranger wherever I go.
    A refugee, an immigrant, rootless, unplanted
    Is there a place assigned for me?

    (My book is not written in verse mode. This just happened to come that way.)

  31. Hummm…thought provoking. Never thought of doing a memoir. A few weeks ago I did a brain dump and ended up with 13 Biblical truths I learned as a result of having our daughter murdered and haven’t had the faintest idea what to do with them. Feedback from non-family & friends say they are powerful truths…what 2-3 memoirs would you suggest specific for my consideration?

  32. Thanks, Jerry, for another great article. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for quite some time. One of the things that’s held me back, is that some of the most pivotal moments in life came at the end of painful experiences. I would never want my memoir to implicate someone else’s wrongdoing, and yet those experiences have taught me so much and made me who I am today. I’m going to read your linked article about throwing people under the bus. Something I don’t want to do, and I’m sure you have an answer for. :)

    Thanks again!

  33. Hey Lila, this is Dean from Jerry’s Team, here! One of Jerry’s very favorite books of all time regardless of genre is All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, and I know he’s also mentioned A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin as great memoirs to read. Enjoy!

  34. Dean from Jerry’s Team here, Rebecca! Thank you so much for sharing with us. While Jerry’s crazy schedule does not allow him to review review full manuscripts or extended segments of folks’ writing at this time, we would certainly encourage your fellow commenters to take a peek and feel free to start a discussion about their perspectives on your work in the Comments section here!

  35. Hi Kathy! Dean from Jerry’s Team, here. As I mentioned in response to Rebecca’s comment, also on this page, we would certainly encourage fellow commenters to feel free to check out your blog site and start a discussion about your blog posts here in the Comments section!

  36. Ah, just realized Jerry mentioned his top 10 memoirs already in this blog post! I will say, though, that even though they may or may not be super-specific to your journey, Lila, those first three I mentioned Jerry brings up time and time again as not only powerful memoirs but powerful books in general. So I’m sure you couldn’t go wrong starting with those…

  37. Hi Rebecca! Your book is precious. It looks like it was a labor of love to put it together. I couldn’t see much of it, but what I saw reminded me of my dear friend Callie Daruk, who’s also writing a memoir based on the traumatic birth of her twins. I believe you both have incredible hearts to share your pain and the love you’ve received from Christ with others who are hurting.

    I have to say, what really impressed me was your acknowledgements page. Not only does it illustrate the lengths you’ve gone to write this book, but it also demonstrates your gratitude to others who’ve helped you along. I pray I follow your example when I finally finish my novel! God bless you richly. :)

  38. I loved your Mardi Gras story, Mrs. Storrie! What a name! I hope you keep writing! I read somewhere that blogs only start to get noticed after fifty or so posts. I hope I’m getting close, but you should surely keep on! God bless :)

  39. Whoa, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a powerful memoir that would be. Another really good one, along with the ones Dean mentioned that might help, is “Saving My Assassin” by Virginia Prodan. It’s the story of how a woman in Communist Romania forgave and actually led her would-be assassin to the knowledge of the Christ who loved him. It’s available from Tyndale. :) God bless your writing. Richly.

  40. Printing this out and posting by my computer! The timing is perfect as I was recently contracted to write a memoir for a fiery retired pastor with whom I so not share experiences, ethnicity, gender, denomination or life season but his life is absolutely chock-full of transferable wisdom which makes my job if not easy, certainly enjoyable.

  41. been following his website and learning as I go … Thanks! I’ve listened to a few interviews too and taken lots of notes. I really want to take his classes, but … well … maybe when we get our tax return … LOL!

  42. Your help comes to me having already authored my first in the memoir genre. While I would have been resourced well by your thoughts, I’m pleased to say many are incorporated even before receiving your excellent coaching.
    The book is “Sacred Journey,” my wife’s memoir following her death from pancreatic cancer. It is her (our) story, framed in the final 18 months of her journey here on earth. It offers a special focus on the emotional, and spiritual journey caregivers and those facing life-threatening illnesses are on. It was published last year.
    I’m just getting into this course this summer, Jerry, and am looking forward to the help you are to me and to us all.
    ~Ward Tanneberg, author Redeeming Grace (Illumination Award)

  43. Thank you Rebekah Love Dorris! I LOVE you for taking the time to read one of my blog stories and then write me an encouraging comment! God Bless,You! Back when I was young, I said, “God, please let me marry a man with a good last name.”God heard me and blessed me with a wonderful man & he happened to have the last name of Storrie! I have loved it for 44 yrs. and it looks very good on the front of my first novel. After we got married we joked about naming a daughter Love Storrie and a son First Storrie. haha Thanks, again!

  44. Thank you, Dean! I appreciate your offer. After I posted my “memoir lament” I felt a bit guilty and presumptuous for leaving my website on your site. It was refreshing to check my emails tonight thanks to you and Rebekah. Jerry is teaching me a lot!

  45. Haha! Great story! ???? I love my maiden name. I was going to completely forsake it once I married my dream prince, but when Facebook came along he encouraged me to go by both maiden and married names. So happy I still get to use it! And I do love Dorris! Haha

    Fun talking with you! God bless :)

  46. Thank you Jerry, you have given encouragement to write the story I have had on the back burner for years. I have always heard that publishers were not interested in Memoirs, thank you for this timely article. The working title I have in mind is: “Life is tough, if I could not laugh, I would be crying.”

  47. Your website is intriguing. Lots of love and personal stories fill your life and your blogs. Thanks for your intimate views of life in Florida, your bond to your cat, and other cool stories there. Keep writing!

  48. I’ve been saying it nonstop to whoever will listen that joining Jerry’s guild is the best thing I ever did for my writing career! This post is further proof!

  49. “A story untold Is forgotten” is an opening line in the book, Sarah’s Keys, and I take that to heart. We ALL have a story to tell. I read memoir after memoir before starting From Tears to Triumph, My Journey to the House of Hope. What I discovered in reading memoirs was what I DIDN”T want to accomplish. I didn’t want a sad, poor me story…we all have them. I wanted an encouraging story, thus the title From TEARS to TRIUMPH. It took me three years to write and I got a lot of feedback (including from you, Jerry Jenkins, early on when you read and critiqued writing samples). I then went on to write Love Thy Neighbor, A Precarious Endeavor. I don’t want to leave the planet with my stories untold. Writing is an honor. Writing with a purpose to change lives is a bigger honor. hugs.

  50. Today I’m organizing the many notes of a memoir, taking a deep, deep sigh and plunging forward. Hesitation flashes bright lights of warning: too big a task, you can’t make it not preach! The subject of the memoir [a recovered addict] has been told by many people, “your story helped me; others need to hear/read your story.” He’s asked me to help so I shouted –somebody HELP me! And Jerry Jenkins sent the above in a mentor email — timely. Thanks.

  51. What woman in her right mind and facing her 90th birthday in a few months would even attempt writing a memoir that traces a missionary life from the USA to three other countries and two others visited many times, who had a name she hated as a young child but today loves because of the crape myrtle trees?

    I was child number 8, unwanted, but in desperation, given to God before I was born. A midwife cut away the membrane which covered my face and announced “this young’un will cross the water many times and never drown.” That was all past history of which I knew nothing until I was ready to make that long trip across the ocean.

    That is the beginning of my story which as of now has not ended. I did cross the oceans, over 20 times and I am here and ready to start telling the story…

  52. I am working on my memoir/testimony. I have started and restarted, but I tend to get hung up on tiny details and chronology. Your advice has shown me that I have been in more of an autobiographical mindset. Suddenly, by simply calling my story a “memoir”, I feel more freedom of expression. Thank you so much!

  53. Hi Jerry, thank you so much for the insight you’ve written in this article. I like how you articulate the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. I also found it encouraging that one does not necessarily need to be well-known in order to sell a successful memoir. Your specific examples throughout this article are great, like when you walk the reader through “showing” and not just “telling” their story. Ultimately, you bring it back to what really matters when you explain that “you may be the subject, but it’s not about you — it’s about what readers can gain from your story.” Keeping this in mind, I’ll have a better chance of writing something successful!
    – Bonnie Orange (Andrews)

  54. I have done a few memoirs of different family members. Mostly, my mom. My first one won second prize in a contest and did well. I named it, A Basket Case. And I was shocked. Because it was not a story about great accomplishments or high merit.. But about one mundane aspect of her life, as compared to mine in present day. In this case, ironing. My mother was a hard worker. One who ironed for years. A committed person, alienated against a lifetime of wrinkles coupled with an ironing board seldom unoccupied. Whereas mine hid in the closet, cowering against the very thought of manipulating a wrinkle. That’s the kind of things I write about. I love to incorporate the walls and ceilings of my life, and invite those I knew there to return, to be who they are/ were, in a world that knew more stability than my world does now.

  55. I’ve wanted to write a book for a while, but never knew what to write about. So over the past 2 months, I’ve come to know my father through his family. I never knew him, met him once as a young child, and didn’t even know who he was until I was in my 30’s. It’s a fascinating story of the power of nature, the draw of a biological parent and even how God orchestrated everything for me to begin “knowing” him. But the best part is through me knowing my father, I’ve began to understand myself, at 53 years old!! It’s been an incredible journey. One that’s been quick, action-packed and still unfolding. But, everyone I tell the story to is spell bound! Half I’ve told the story to comment “You’re going to write a book about this, right?” But this post by Jerry has helped me understand it’s actually a memoir and I’m now ready to begin!!!

  56. I just stumbled upon you while searching Twitter for inspiration. I have written a memoir and keep editing. Unlike most writers, I’ve never had inspirations to write. That is not until this past year. I honestly believe that my life, both good and bad, will inspire others. At age 5, a gut feeling told me the dad I knew and loved, was not my dad. Several events in the next 20 years left me wondering again, but mom denied it, each time with fear in her eyes.
    After her death, and dad’s too, a relative revealed the truth. I am now 64 and this year the mystery was solved. No one is more lucky than I am.
    I asked a friend to read the manuscript. She feels it should only be about the search, without Antidotes. I struggle with proper writing. Now I fear it includes snippets of my life that are not needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.