Before you begin writing your own memoir, you should probably read some famous examples. When you do, you’ll realize that memoir writers have something in common with one another. They all manage to tell a compelling story about their real lives, without thoroughly chronicling all the events that have transpired. That’s the main difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Whereas an autobiography covers a subject’s entire life, a memoir focuses only on stories that fit a particular theme.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at two books by American presidents.
Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father is a memoir. It covers limited topics, which include family, race and identity, manhood, and community. He omits stories from his life that have to do with the period after his entry into law school, and he leaves out anecdotes that don’t fit the book’s main themes.
In contrast, Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiographycovers all the major events in President Roosevelt’s life, such as his childhood, first marriage, civil service, second marriage, Navy service, political career, love of big game hunting, etc. Like most autobiographies, the book has a mostly chronological story structure that relates his key life experiences in order.
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If you decide to write a memoir, you’ll need to develop a guiding principle that will help you decide which true stories to include. In order to do that, it may help to write down a list of your favorite anecdotes. For this exercise, you don’t need to start writing the entire story. Instead, write a few words that will suffice to call the story to mind.
Your list might look something like this:
The time my sister and I ran away from home
Meeting my best friend
First day of high school
Losing my first race in New York
Winning a million dollars in the stock market
You might have a list of hundreds of short stories by the time you finish. Decide whether any overarching themes stand out to you. Also, think about which of your own experiences would be the most instructive to others. Can you save anyone from making the same mistakes you did? Imagine your personal experiences from a stranger’s perspective. Circle the ones that would be most interesting to someone with a different point of view from your own. Think about who the main characters in your life story might be. Decide which relationships you’d like to explore in your memoir. Do you want to spend your hours writing in the company of your friends, coworkers, or family members?
By the end of this exercise, you may be able to write a sentence or two to narrow down the themes that you’ll cover in your book. Write a few words about what you want readers to take away from your story. Remember that you can always write another memoir that covers different themes at a later date. For now, you’ll be best served by narrowing the scope of your writing project.
There’s no shortage of books on the writing process. Sitting down and writing 70,000-90,000 words can be challenging, and many famous authors give excellent advice on how to slog through the hardest part.
Here are a few of the creative writing techniques that we find particularly helpful:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
“After a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful — it’s ‘fun’ only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.” —Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” —William Faulkner, Conversations with William Faulkner
“I try to remember times in my life, incidents in which there was the dominating theme of cruelty, or kindness, or generosity, or envy, or happiness, glee . . . perhaps four incidents in the period I’m going to write about. Then I select the one that lends itself best to my device and that I can write as drama without falling into melodrama.” —Maya Angelou, interview in The Paris Review
As the writing tips above indicate, a book-length, personal memoir requires lots of careful editing. Sometimes, memoir writers even create composite characters in order to cut to the heart of the story more efficiently. After writing all of the stories that you selected in your pre-writing phase (and maybe a few extra), you’ll need to revise your narrative so that the book contains several key turning points.
Cheryl Suchors, writing for Writers Digest, lists the five key points in a great memoir as: “…The triggering event that gets the action rolling down toward the second point, a conflict or complication that gets worked through to create a rising action; the third turn which sends the action spiraling downward to the fourth point, the lowest point of the book, from which the action ascends to the fifth point or conclusion.” Of course, memoirists sometimes choose to deviate from this structure. Regardless of how the author decides to introduce dramatic tension, a good memoir always has a triggering event, conflict, and resolution.
Over the course of the memoir, the main character (that’s you) needs to change and grow. Sometimes, character development requires an author to alter the sequence of events slightly or introduce narrative techniques, like flashbacks and expository dialogue. As you move from your first draft to your second draft, you should be looking for ways to “trim the fat” by eliminating or condensing stories that don’t serve the larger theme. In the best memoirs, every description, character, and conversation contributes to the whole.
Sharing Your Story
Maybe you want to write for a small group of close family members. Perhaps you hope your memoir can become a bestseller one day. Whatever your intentions, you’ll probably want somebody to read your memoir when it’s complete.
At first, give your manuscript to a few trusted readers, and ask them to summarize their takeaways from the book. You might be surprised to learn that other people have different interpretations of the events in your own life. Memoir writing can be tricky, especially when you tell personal stories about your loved ones. Ask your readers to describe their impressions of all your characters. If the readers walk away with a different understanding than you intended, you may want to revise your book.
When you’re ready to share your work more broadly, you can consider self-publishing, publishing with a small press, or publishing with one of the five major publishing companies. For the latter two options, you’ll need to secure a literary agent. Doing so can prove challenging, especially for a first-time author. To learn more about the publishing industry, take a look at this article from The Guardian.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.