The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: Write a Memoir

Getting Personal: How to Write a Memoir

You don’t need to be a celebrity to write a memoir. You don’t need to have lived through a lifetime of harrowing events, either. The only requirement is a unique personal story that only you can tell. The beauty of the personal memoir is its ability to link us together in our shared humanity - the sharing of truths and realizations that may be decades, countries, and cultures apart, but still distinctly human in their vulnerability.

People write personal memoirs for various reasons. Perhaps you want to preserve your family’s legacy or learn about your ancestors. Perhaps you are healing from a traumatic experience. Maybe you are searching for your personal identity or peering into the past for answers for the future. Maybe you’re seeking to understand and process a recent series of life events.

No matter your inspiration, the memoir writing process can provide you reflection points and a fresh perspective you may not arrive at on your own; after all, hindsight is 20/20.

In this guide, you will learn:

  • The difference: memoir vs. autobiography
  • The characteristics of a memoir
  • How to write a memoir outline
  • Memoir writing tips

Memoir vs. Autobiography

Often confused, understanding the difference between the memoir vs. autobiography is critical to writing a good personal memoir. While an autobiography spans the entire lifetime of the writer and traverses multiple themes, consider the memoir a “slice of life”, or a composite of memories tied together by a common theme, often a lesson learned. The events in a memoir may span a few hours to even years, depending on the theme and its structure and presentation.

The memoir genre is replete with subgenres; a visit to a brick and mortar bookstore or exploring the virtual shelves of an online retailer reveal the most common. These can include coming-of-age, inspirational, death and dying, divorce, cooking, addiction and recovery, travel, grief, parenting, marriage, sports, and celebrity memoirs. If you’ve identified the theme of your memoir, exploring where it fits into the existing market can be valuable research.

Write a Standout: Characteristics of a Memoir

Storytellers are a dime a dozen, so what makes a great memoir? The following are characteristics of standout memoirs.

  • Clear theme from the start
    The theme is the spine of your story and is what distinguishes your memoir from a rambling pile of disconnected anecdotes. In the planning stages, a clearly identified theme will help you decide what to include and what to omit, ensuring a tightly written final product. Before writing your first draft, try noting for yourself some reflections on what you’ve learned from the memories or events you’ve decided to present, then return to these notes afterwards - are these lessons still reflected in your memoir? Furthermore, your focus needs to be clear from the beginning: you only have a few pages to hook your potential reader in. Plunge them into the action immediately, make your theme clear (memoir readers are looking for lessons to be learned), and allow details such as your background and backstory to unravel in time through action.
  • Subtle and honest, not preachy and vain
    Center the lessons you learned, not yourself, in your writing. Shared humanity allows your reader to glean certain human truths from your experience that may relate to their own lives; therefore, your transformation is key to your audience. That said, your lessons should be subtle and suggested, not obvious and preachy. Your reader is not here to be lectured or told what to do. Your brutal honesty and candor is what will make your story the most relatable. Readers can see right through attempts to dress yourself up: remember, your strengths and weaknesses are what make you compelling, and human. No one needs another superhero.
  • Target a specific audience
    You can’t write a catch-all memoir, just as you can’t write a catch-all novel, short story, or business proposal. Identifying and writing directly to your target audience, or those who will learn the most from your story, will strengthen your memoir.
  • Exercise discretion with characters
    Writing your own emotional truth about an event may result in portraying other characters, or in the case of a memoir, real people, in less than satisfactory ways. And this is okay - it is your perception and experience of events, however, there are steps to take in order to avoid damaging your relationships with some people or even a defamation lawsuit. Write your first draft uncensored with real names, places, and details - editing as you write can obscure your story. However, during the editing process, consider disguising identifying information such as names, physical appearances, and details that aren’t central to the plot. If in doubt, get feedback from an editor or even an attorney.
  • Professionally edited
    Memoirs present a unique challenge to authors in the realm of self-editing because of their closely personal nature. Attempting objectivity can be nearly impossible when writing about yourself. Often only an outside eye can tell you when more background information is necessary. Hiring a professional editor is always recommended if you are seeking to publish your work; see our guide on how to self-publish a book for recommendations on how to find a book editor.
  • Professionally edited
    Memoirs present a unique challenge to authors in the realm of self-editing because of their closely personal nature. Attempting objectivity can be nearly impossible when writing about yourself. Often only an outside eye can tell you when more background information is necessary. Hiring a professional editor is always recommended if you are seeking to publish your work; see our guide on how to self-publish a book for recommendations on how to find a book editor.

Getting Started: Tips & How to Write a Memoir Outline

Although you may be writing from personal experience, crafting a memoir is no easy feat. Identifying a theme alone can be challenging, not to mention the selection of memories you’ll use to communicate your reflections and how you choose to present these events. Our first tip is to read a variety of published memoirs to study how authors choose to tell their stories; you will note all the above characteristics of a memoir in addition to the choices each author has made in the presentation of their story - not all are chronological, for example.

We have collected our best tips on how to approach the memoir-writing process below, specifically, how to find your focus and how to write a memoir outline.

Finding your focus:

  • Peruse the journal
    If you’ve kept a journal, try going back through old entries to identify patterns and possible themes for your piece. This process can help you develop your memoir’s focus.
  • Narrow the field
    Isolate the top three events in your life so far and write a few paragraphs about each one. Notice which propels your pen the most - which presents the most compelling opportunity to tell a story? Which is the hardest to stop writing about?
  • Interview yourself
    Now that you’ve found the main event, treat yourself as an interview subject. We ask the most probing questions of others because we don’t know what to expect and there’s no fear in digging into someone else’s secrets. Ask yourself uncomfortable questions that can trigger stories that may otherwise go untold. What shaped you? What did you sacrifice? What bare truths did you learn?

Creating an outline:

  • Start from the end and make a timeline
    Identify the ending of the personal story you are telling - how did you arrive there? Perhaps you’ve moved cross country to start a new chapter in your life. What events led to this point? At this point, think linearly; you may not eventually tell your story in chronological order, however in order to capture all important and related events, it is best to think in order. Make a timeline and write all the events that led to the climax or life-changing event. Use short sentences to describe them; you don’t need to detail or make full connections here. Some events may be hours, or months apart, some years. Don’t worry about time in between.
  • Research to build a comprehensive picture
    Our memories can be notoriously selective - that is, emotionally true, but factually false. In order to build a comprehensive picture, lookup verifiable facts. Interview people in your life during these events (family members, coworkers, friends), revisit places if possible, and return to your timeline if necessary. Sometimes the very selectiveness of our memories can indicate how we processed and handled events; it can be interesting to explore these discrepancies. Gaining other people’s perspectives can even help to unearth buried memories.
  • Identify your theme
    Now that you have a brimming history of notes, artifacts, and interviews centered around a timeline of events, consider what lessons or ideas keep recurring, if they are not already obvious at this point. What is your main argument; what is your deepest reflection or lesson? How have you been transformed?
  • Trim to keep moments of high emotion
    Keep only the events related to your theme in order to maintain unity and focus in your piece. Of these, examine your moments of “high emotion” - when were you the most elated, afraid, unsure, or bone-shakingly angry? These moments reveal the truest character.
  • Plot your story into a narrative arc
    If working chronologically (see other options below), structure your story using the classic narrative arc of inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Think of how your protagonist (in this case, you) changes throughout the story. How did each experience lead up to the climax? How did they serve as mini turning points?

Play with structure:

  • Chronological
    Your story follows a narrative arc in this vein, however, during the editing process, consider how you might want to move events around and play with pace. Think about flashbacks and flash-forwards and how they might serve in telling your story.
  • Character studies
    If appropriate to your theme, consider structuring your piece around short character studies, however, be careful to avoid the risk of a flatness in hopping from one subject to the other. How can you still build momentum toward an understanding or lesson?
  • Before and after
    Similar to a classic narrative arc, the before and after memoir structure places more emphasis on contrasting life before and after a climatic event or shift in your life.
  • “Figure Eight”
    In a “figure eight” structure, two seemingly unrelated events come to intertwine and reveal shared reflections and lessons.
  • List
    This technique serves well for shorter pieces. In this structure, the order of a list is used to help impart your insights.
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