tips-for-writing-a-memoir

Six Tips For Writing A Memoir That People Will Actually Read

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Often, the most compelling and permanent method to capture the powerful emotions and impact of a specific life event is through memoir.

Writing memoir is a highly personal and “self” orientated experience. While you do not need to be an established, published or experienced writer to begin writing your memoir, if you are writing to publish, it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of writing, and to forget that you are – above all – writing for a specific audience and not just yourself.

Let’s have a look at what you might want to avoid when writing your memoir in order to make it an enjoyable experience for both yourself when writing, and your audience when reading.

1. A therapeutic experience vs. therapy

You may be compelled to write memoir as a way to piece together an experience that has been extra-ordinary. The memoir then, serves as an outlet to gather your thoughts lucidly and coherently. This is beneficial: by retrospectively and objectively re-examining an event, we can begin to understand and come to terms with life altering changes. For the writer, this is a therapeutic experience.

But …

Do not confuse this with therapy. If you intend to publish to an audience besides yourself and close family/friends, then it is vital you keep in mind that you are writing for this select audience.

This audience does not wish to read long-winded journal-esque pieces which are in danger of sounding self-indulgent. You must be hyperaware that you are not just writing for yourself, but you are primarily writing for an audience who has invested in your publication.

And what is this audience looking for?

People who read memoirs wish to delve into something vivid and evocative; a text profound enough to enlighten them on experiences which they may not have undergone. They seek a moral or a message as they glimpse into a snippet of someone’s life.

So how can you avoid falling into the therapy trap? Well …

2. Don’t forget you are writing memoir

One important aspect that must be at the forefront of your mind is that you are not writing your autobiography.

What you are writing about is a specific snippet, a specific turning point in your life, a specific memory which has affected you profoundly. After all this is the single event that you deemed engaging enough to share with the world. Not something you would easily forget, right?

With this in mind, it’s important for you to elucidate the overarching “theme” of your memoir before you begin writing. So, for example, let’s say your memoir is inspired by overcoming a potentially life threatening illness, and your story is one of resilience when the odds were against you.

This is the “theme” of your memoir, the message you are trying to put across – one of hope, triumph and courage. These are the sentiments you wish for your reader to be left with, months after they put your memoir down. So, these sentiments should be so vivid that your reader identifies with them and the complexities these emotions bring.

This doesn’t need to be difficult. Follow this simple rule:

3. Less detail = more purpose = more meaning

But, what does this mean?

The answer: avoid meaning-less details which have no relation to your overarching theme.

If your memoir is about overcoming illness then would, for example, recounting an argument you had with your best friend about her lack of punctuality be entirely relevant to the situation you are conveying?

Probably not.

Of course, this event might be important and meaningful to you, but it wouldn’t be important to your reader who is reading your memoir to gain insight into your experiences with an illness and the consequences of this.

What this means, then, is that you will have to skip forward months, or even years in your written memoir in order to deliver only the aspects which are conducive to the wider message you are trying to convey to your readers.

But that’s okay, because my next tip is to …

4. Avoid chronology

That’s right.

Memoirs are distinct as they underplay chronological dates and times which novels, short stories and even autobiographies rely so heavily on.

Of course, our lives are not comprised of solitary, isolated bundles of experience. Rather, the repercussions of our life choices and events all form threads which bind together to create experience. The single contained nugget of your life you are writing about will of course have implications on other aspects of your life too.

It’s important to bear in mind that the actual turning points and the implications of the turning points are two separate entities. It is understanding the turning points (i.e. the events which have inspired the memoir) which are significant to the story and require deep unpicking to succinctly convey their emotional significance.

So, how does one avoid chronology in memoir writing? The answer is simple.

Ignore it.

When you begin writing your memoir, think about the events which are most incongruent and distinct in your memory in relation to your overarching theme. Make these events your focus, and don’t be too concerned with the time scale or the time frame in which they happened.

In How to Write a Memoir, Zinsser provides some good advice:

…think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct.

5. Don’t lie!

Of course, from the tips above, being honest throughout your memoir isn’t strictly true. In some respects, writing memoir requires the writer to lie by omission. This just means that you omit details which, while true, are disengaging and add nothing to the overarching theme.

However, sometimes, when we venture back into past memories, it’s easy to put on those proverbial rose-tinted specs. Even easier, is ignoring our own flaws and faults when re-examining our pasts.

By doing so, however, the memoir is at risk of sounding extremely biased and in some cases self-pitying. Don’t forget that you are writing for readers who have their own imperfections too, and they bring these with them when they read your memoir. If you present your weaknesses and shortcomings together with your strengths and triumphs, then, as the narrator, your “voice” is all the more human and, consequently, all the more relatable and engaging.

6. Don’t lose your voice

So far, I’ve stressed that keeping your audience in mind is important when writing memoir. What is equally important is not forgetting your own “voice”; not forgetting the “I”. It is the “I” in the memoir that should come alive and jump from the page. After all, as Gore Vidal observed when writing his own memoir, Palimpsest, ultimately “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life”.

A great example of this is Bill Bryson and his travel memoirs. Anybody who has read Bryson’s travelogues is aware of his unique style; he successfully amalgamates travel writing, narrative non-fiction and humor into one hilarious bundle.

Without meeting Bryson, we know through reading his travel memoirs that his views of the world – though poignantly reflective – are underscored by a wry acerbity and light-hearted disdain. We find ourselves nodding in agreement at Bryson’s observations almost as though he is personally letting us in to a secret. This then becomes Bryson’s “voice” and separates him from a travel writer who simply recounts his adventures, yet keeps an emotional distance from his memories.

Remember, it’s your story. Powerful narrators in memoirs are those who “act”, who are neck deep in the action – in the memory – and can convey precisely how and what they think and feel at this precise moment in time, and how this situation has shaped their lives and themselves today.

If you keep your voice, and personalize your story, then your readers will no doubt follow you on the journey you take them through your memoir.

What do you believe makes a great memoir? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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27 thoughts on “Six Tips For Writing A Memoir That People Will Actually Read”

  1. LOVE your commenting about NOT lying. In the end a memoir is your story. It is a time to be honest about your life, and perhaps tell the truth for the first time regarding decisions you made that weren’t fully understood. Lying about who you are or how you got here literally destroys the legacy you have earned in life. Nice article. Thank you

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Joe. I’ll pass them on.

      There’s a webcomic by Zach Weinersmith where the joke is that Heaven is exactly like Earth, except that everyone automatically understands the true intent behind each other’s words and actions. I think a lot of memoir writing has a relationship with that idea.

      (Edit: the webcomic is named ‘Heaven’, and can be found here.)

      Best,
      Rob

  2. I am trying to write my memoir of life in africa and the uk. I believe a memoir is very personal and if the reader is interested in the country he came from the reader would carry on reading to see where that life will end up. It will be my first novel so where it will end up is anyones guess.
    I have a long way to go before i decide if its for the public interest or
    family?

    1. You might want to learn the difference between memoir and novel before you go any further with what you’re writing, as there is quite a significant difference between them.

    2. Thanks for sharing your plans, Peter. It can be really freeing to write something without knowing if it’s going to end up with a mass audience.

      – Rob

  3. If you are an editor don’t read this.
    I plan to self publish when I’ve finish my book.
    Editors just take the most important bits out. I should know i worked with them for 14 years in a print and publishing firm.

    1. Even if you don’t want an editor to ‘take the best bits out’ I strongly recommend that you have someone go over it for grammar and syntax quality because you’re never able to proofread your own work in that way.

    2. Thanks for sharing your advice, mr considine. Obviously, it’s our approach that editors can help improve both the technical (spelling, grammar, tense) and artistic (voice, clarity, consistency) aspects of a given work. That said, editors should only ever be giving authors options – not only should an editor not be removing the most important parts of a piece of writing, the relationship shouldn’t be such that they can ‘remove’ anything without the author’s ultimate approval.

      – Rob

  4. Zaheer Parvez, Ph.D.

    I read your 6 tips for writing one’s memoirs with great interest and really appreciated the suggestions.
    I had a scientific career and wrote books in bio-medical discipline. I came as a foreign student in this country from India about 50 years ago and have been blessed by the generosity of American people.
    I started writing my memoirs and have written about 130 pages. However, my approach is very traditional. I need to throughly revise my chapters after reading your tips.
    Thanks for the ideas.
    Zaheer Parvez

    1. Our pleasure, Zaheer. I’m really glad this article was helpful, and I hope your project went as you hoped.

      – Rob

  5. I just found your article, with the help of Google (isn’t she kind?), and wanted to thank you. I’ve decided to write a memoir because of something difficult I went through this past summer. It might be too soon, you know, I may still need to sort through my motive for writing it and so forth, and make sure there isn’t a scintilla of anger left.

    Anyway, please let me thank you again. These are clear, concise steps that one can follow. A lamp and a road map; just everything. 🙂

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words, Christina. I’m really glad this article could be helpful in your project, and I hope it was an endeavor that was ultimately more helpful than stressful.

      – Rob

  6. Very nice article. I have written a memoir which runs into more than 600 oages. This is my first novel.
    Will I need to downsize it?

  7. Holy cow! I’ve been googling for days in an attempt to gain some insight on how to write my memoir in a way that it stands out. This article is everything. (Side note: The name is very near and dear to my heart, that name has been given to many females in my family and i’ve haven’t heard it used elsewhere until today!) Anyway, you’re article is exactly what I needed to see today, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

  8. I read your information about writing a memoir. I have one question to ask with regards to doing so. I have kept a journal for over 30 years. If I were to write my memoir, would it be appropriate to read my entries again? I know that this is my story as they say but those journal entries are also part of my story. Can you provide some advice on how I should or should not use all of my journals when I embark on writing my memoir? Thank you in advance for your assistance and suggestions.

    1. Of course you should read your journal when preparing to write a memoir! Why wouldn’t you? It’s the single most valuable research resource you have.

    2. Hi Thomas,

      It certainly seems like it would be advisable to consult your journals; there’s likely to be a lot of forgotten information in there, as well as the context of what you felt and understood at the time.

      The only thing I’d advise is to try and treat your past self like you would any other expert; they know a great deal about the subject, but you’re not beholden to their take on it. Try jotting down as many notes as you can prior to consulting your journals, then dive in. That way, you get all the context of the past, but you have a way to hold onto what the ‘now’ you has thought and felt since.

      Best,
      Rob

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for the suggestion, that’s something we’d be happy to look into. What elements of this subject would you most like to see us cover?

      Best,
      Rob

  9. Writing a memoir is quite a task but it truthfully helps me in streangthening my self confidence etc… I battle a chronic health disorder that’s kept me from participating or doing many of the typical things a normal person might be able to do but I won’t let it bring me to a complete halt. The fact is my true education came upon after gaining a college graduation in medicine and now I’ve learned the true definition to what schooling means. Loss comes upon all of us at times, along with questionable details in regards to what does this mean,? If I’m to do this or that will it make a difference? Do I have much of a chance in accomplishing a goal I might have? The thing is I realize that physical object(brain) of mine host both voluntary and involuntary control but my life began when I gained faith. If he or she can do it so can I.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Kelly. It’s great that you’ve found this kind of freedom and potential in writing.

      – Rob

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