Memoirs generally have a focus, on a specific aspect of your life, a moment that changed you and your subsequent reflections; people, places, or things that have had a distinct impact on you, which you want to capture today, in words. While writing one can be a challenge, it can also be a cathartic experiences to put your memories on paper.
Memoirs are arguably more difficult than autobiographies – at least with the latter, you can be pretty confident you know facts about your life. With a memoir, you need a significant, thematic angle to carry your story along, and thinking that deeply about your life experiences can be harder than most people think!
In this guide, you’ll learn what you need to plan, what sorts of information you need to gather, and ultimately how to write a memoir. Before we begin, consider checking out these memoir writing exercises, and finding your inspiration!
Step 1 – Find Your Focus
This can undoubtedly be the most difficult part of writing a memoir, and it’s not a surprise. Just like any work of literature, figuring out how and where to begin is tough! You might have a general idea of what you want to write about, but finding that hook – that focus – and milking it for all its importance is what separates a great memoir from a mediocre one.
This first step in the memoir writing process requires a lot of introspection and self-reflection… in other words, some good, old fashion soul searching!
Grab a notebook, and start taking notes
Whether you’re a laptop and word processor kind of writer, or a conventional pen and paper type, you need to start taking some solid notes about your life. This step is essential in finding your focus, composing an angle, and planning your memoir in the first place. Every writer should keep a journal full of ideas.
If you’re writing a memoir, chances are you’re the type to keep a journal. If this is the case, dig up all your old diaries, and start flipping through. Mark important pages, jot down meaningful quotes that relate to your memoir’s focus. Writing a memoir is a very, very personal process. Any way you can connect with your past self, through old journals, pictures, or video is a good starting point, especially if those materials either relate to your chosen focus, or can help you track one down. After all, this is all about turning memories into memoir, as illustrated in this memoir writing course, so embrace the past!
What is a focus, anyway?
Your memoir can be about any aspect, moment, or period in your life that holds some kind of significance to you; enough to be rendered into prose for others to read. This is where I slip in a little footnote about the whole “embrace the past” point. When I say “embrace,” that doesn’t necessarily mean positively. Your memoir can be about funny, happy, and successful memories as much as it can tragic and devastating ones. Naturally, it can be a combination of both.
Take Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In his memoir, King talks about everything from his early life as a poor, struggling author, to his history of drug and alcohol abuse, to practical writing and editing advice for the aspiring novelist. He even talks about the time he got hit by a car! As you can see, his memoir contains a multitude of anecdotes and explanations, documenting his life’s successes, failures, tragedies, and accomplishments, with a few quirky incidents in between, while still maintaining an overall, overarching focus on the art and craft of writing. That’s his focus.
So what should my focus be?
If scouring through your journals and personal belongings hasn’t sparked any good ideas, here’s a list of possible topics a memoir can explore. Find the one that relates to you, go back to your notes, and find the info you need to make it happen.
- Being the first person in your family to attend college
- Learning a new language
- Mastering a craft
- Going to jail or prison
- Moving to a new country and learning to adapt
- Winning a contest or award
- Losing your job and living homeless
- Landing your first concert with your band
- Recovering from addiction
- Having a significant change of mind on a political belief
- Building your first computer, or piece of furniture, or house
- Coming out to your family or friends
- Your time in the military
- Surviving a serious illness or disease
- Being the first of your gender, race, orientation, etc. to accomplish something specific
Most of these are very generic, of course, and they’ll have to be custom tailored to your own personal story. Find what stands out about your own circumstances, and hone in on it. There are a million memoirs about exploring the world, but for each person was a specific circumstance, a unique experience, a fresh end result. Find yours.
Need more help? Check out this memoir writing course, Putting Life in Life Stories.
Step 2 – Discuss Your Topic With Others
Sifting through journals and your own personal memory can only do so much sometimes. Even the clearest of our memories may have played out differently than we recall, and even if they didn’t, having input from others who were present can do wonders for your memoir’s perspective.
Perhaps you’re writing a memoir about your time as a police officer, or fire fighter, or doctor. Find your old work friends, take them out for beers, and have some hearty discussions – don’t forget to bring a notebook! Maybe you’re writing about your high school or college experiences. Meet up with old classmates and friends, maybe even an old professor or TA, and reminisce.
Even though your memoir is about you and your life, it’s still been shaped and affected by others. Track those people down, see what they have to say, and seriously, remember – bring a notebook.
Talk to a therapist
Talking to others can help you plan your memoir, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be people involved in your focus. Try seeking out a therapist. Even if the focus of your memoir is positive, a therapist is still an opportunity for you to disclose and discuss those tough, personal topics.
If a therapist is too expensive of an outlet, or if you simply don’t have the time for one, talking to your peers in the writing community or close friends is always a plus too.
Note, this step isn’t necessary, and for some might not even be possible, especially if they’re writing about a time or place from very long ago. Just know that having those additional angles, when possible, can be so valuable in the early, planning stages of your memoir. If you can help it, don’t pass up the chance!
Step 3 – Know Where to Start, and Where to Finish
Just like most conventional stories, a memoir should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but of course the structural timeline of your memoir doesn’t necessarily have to coincide with the actual timeline of events. For instance, if you want to begin your memoir discussing your homecoming from a long tour of duty, and how you re-adapted to civilian life, then talk about your experience in the army and why you joined in the middle of the story, and close it with some discussions of your present or future involvement with the military, that’s all totally fine.
Just like Jean-Luc Godard said: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, “but not necessarily in that order.”
Only you can decide how your story is told, but remember that you should be aware of your opening and closing sentiments before you even begin writing. Just like any other novel, your memoir needs a “point,” whether that’s a life lesson you want to share with others, a statement about the current state of the world that an experience you have demonstrates, supports, or subverts, etc.
For more information on thematic and chronological organization, check out this course on writing your life story.
Step 4 – Fact Check
To avoid the long, potentially tedious process of proofreading your completed manuscript over and over again for factual inaccuracies, fact check your work before you even begin writing. If you’ve followed the aforementioned steps, you’re probably keeping plenty of reference materials such as notes, diaries, journals, outlines, post-it notes, whatever.
This reference material is probably not as long as your memoir will be, plus it’s all just concentrated bits of information like names, dates, and other facts. Fact check this reference material beforehand, so once you start writing out your memoir, you’ll feel secure knowing the information you’re pulling from is all correct.
For some expert editing tips, check out this proofreading course.
Step 5 – Start Writing!
If you’ve done all your thinking, planning, and outlining beforehand, actually writing your memoir should be a breeze. Of course, if the act of writing is the part you dread, you can always take a writing course and hone your skills before diving into a full length novel.
Here are some quick tips for writing your memoir that should make the process a lot easier.
Be honest with yourself, be honest with the reader
You should have, in the planning phase, come to terms with some of the more personal elements of the memoir writing process. The more honest you are with yourself throughout the process of writing your memoir, the more comfortable the reader will feel, well… reading it.
If at any point in your memoir you seem closed off, or tense, or biased in a way that’s unexplained to the reader, they will likely treat you the same way we treat unreliable narrators in fiction novels – with skepticism. In a way, every memoir and autobiography has a sort of unreliable narrator, since we can’t avoid personal bias or certain emotions that might impede us from being completely honest about aspects of our lives.
That’s perfectly okay, but if you seem too on edge, too reluctant to open up, too prone to skirting around important topics than confronting them directly, readers will not feel interested. People read the stories of others because they want to learn something, so if there’s nothing to learn, why bother?
Honesty is definitely the way to go when writing your memoir.
Divide your story into parts
It’s hard to write out any extensive work if it isn’t broken down into separate, manageable parts. Maybe you outlined your memoir and pre-planned these sections, but even if you didn’t and you’re already at the writing stage, it’s not too late to divide your story into parts. Just think about the scenes and chapters that stand out on their own, and divide them up in your head. Write each part individually, taking breaks in between to reflect on each one and do some light revising before moving on to the next.
Of course, make sure these parts flow well into each other, but if you can’t think of a good transition, it’s always okay to skip it and get straight to writing the next part. The more time you spend stuck, the more time you’ve wasted when you could have been writing up the part you’ve been looking forward to. You’re bound to come up with a meaningful way to transition while in the process of writing itself, just as authors usually come up with things like titles and names in the middle of, instead of before, writing. Just let things happen.
Step 6 – Revise, Revise, Revise
Trust me, I don’t even have to tell you to do this step, because you’ll probably be on your way to doing it the second that last word is typed up. It’s a natural instinct for anyone who’s just built something to go back and marvel at their creation, but remember not to get too caught up in the moment!
Revising doesn’t just mean proofreading for minor grammar and spelling mistakes here and there; it’s also the process of making sure everything fits and flows together nice and smoothly. This is where you get to test whether or not your memoir makes sense to others. Print out parts and distribute it to friends, family, or writing peers. Discuss your work in a novel writing workshop.
In fact, check out this novel writing workshop class and come back with the skills necessary to polish up your work into the perfect memoir. Remember, this is your story, and you want to tell it the best way that you can!